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Saying No to Victimhood and Facing Up to Tough Karma
Sarah: Dear Sundari, thank you for taking time to read this email.
I am the inquirer, previously identified as a feminist and had “emotional goggles” on. Your response to my question helped immensely when I could see the “emotional hook” that was causing me to project.
Since then I have been continuing with karma yoga and Self-inquiry, I have had phases of sattvic bliss, knowing who I am, and life has been effortless, but recently I am struggling to get out of victim-thinking.
When I was a child I was sexually assaulted, and I was raped four years ago, which has left me with a back injury that will likely cause me pain for the rest of my life. I am trying to say this just stating the facts of what happened to this jiva. I used to drink and take drugs to medicate the pain, but I have been sober for 18 months now and I’m very grateful to Isvara for the sobriety and for a mostly peaceful mind. I follow a sattvic diet and practice yoga, meditate and see an osteopath, all of which help with pain management but do not eliminate the pain altogether.
However, my back pain has been worse over the last few months, and every time it hurts I have memories or flashbacks. I have been in therapy since I stopped drinking, which has helped me to sit with the emotions and memories as awareness. Yet I still spend so much of my time protecting myself from men, being touched or feeling unsafe.
In some ways I think this is good for inquiry because when I feel safe I am relaxed and I can focus on the Self. But I also have the thought that if I continue setting these boundaries (even in my mind) I am enforcing this victim vasana. Yet the idea of living without them makes me feel sick. My stomach turns if I think about a man coming into my personal space uninvited.
I would like to know what you think is best way to dismantle this victim vasana. It has taken a lot of time and effort to bring all the unconscious trauma out into the open. I can sit with it, witness it, until the point when I feel fear. Then I want to control, set boundaries, my body tenses and I feel sick. This is just a thought, but when I’m “feeling” that thought the tamas clouds my mind and the only way out I know is setting boundaries. Does this mean I am creating more karma because I am believing the victim story? How do I get out of this bind?
I read your satsang on fear and I found it very helpful. I understood very well the feeling that I don’t have time to dismantle the fear-thought. I also understood that this fear is self-validating. Yet when I feel it, my body-mind is frozen. I forget all about Vedanta and Self-inquiry and I want to feel safe again. I know I can’t get rid of the memories, but can I make them neutral? So my body-mind does not tense, and therefore I have room to dismantle?
I hope that is enough information to give you an idea of my current situation. It’s hard to put into words the crux of the issue, because the fear is tamasic and it makes it hard to explain.
~ Yours in gratitude
Sundari: It’s good to hear from you, thank you for sharing your story. I like your email, it is to the point and dispassionate; even though you are explaining very difficult life circumstances, you are not whining and complaining. Karma is just karma – it doesn’t mean anything other than the meaning we ascribe to it. This world appears very real, but when we inquire into it, it disappears. So what we experience in it, while very painful, is also therefore not real. That is hard to swallow when terrible things have happened to us, because we feel the pain so acutely.
Some people buckle under seemingly easy life circumstances, others grow stronger despite deeply devastating karma. It all depends on the mind, on the types of thoughts/feelings we harbour and allow to define us, whether our mind is our friend or greatest enemy. To gain control of the mind we need a means of knowledge to understand the mind and the world it lives in, and, a toolkit as it were, to apply that knowledge to our life. You certainly are fortunate to have found it because there is no better toolkit than the teachings of Vedanta.
Vedanta gives us tools that never fail if they are correctly used; they are the answer to everything in mithya. The first one is karma yoga, and I am glad to hear you are applying it. It is the only way to face our karma and to “defang” our fear demons. It is our first line of defence, especially when we have challenging prarabdha karma playing out such as you have. Because karma yoga is for negating the doer – the one who thinks it is responsible for doing, it also opens the doorway of forgiveness. It makes it possible to see that nobody is doing anything, not even those who harmed us.
Forgiveness is not about saying adharmic actions are not adharmic, it just sheds a whole new light on what drives everyone. Even the abuser is abused by his/her abuse. The point is, do you want to be abused by being a victim? I know you don’t. It is the position of least effectiveness in any situation, so forego membership to that club at all costs!
The memory of the painful events is “frozen” in the subtle body, it has formed a deep and painful samskara – the lens – through which you are experiencing life. It’s good that you are having body work done, but the “stuckness” is in the mind, which pervades the body. Self-inquiry is looking at everything we think, feel and do in the light of the teachings – and what are we looking to gain. If you are doing it right, Self-inquiry will soon make it clear that there is nothing to gain in this world. It’s a zero-sum game. And that is because you are already what you are trying to gain. The problem, then, is clearing the mind of the pressure of its likes and dislikes, fears and desires so that it is clear enough to assimilate the knowledge. Clearly, when you are in the grip of this pain/fear samskara you are not able to relate appropriately to your environment or manage the mind, because it is controlled by this samskara. I am sure you do not want it to have that much power over you.
Definitely set boundaries, that is a healthy thing for anyone to do. At this stage of Self-inquiry, a relationship with anyone would probably be distracting anyway, if full Self-actualization is your aim (moksa). Concentrate on your sadhana, forget about whether you should or should not let anyone into your private space.
What is private space anyway, when all is the Self? All the same, you need to understand how Isvara works in your life and in Life. This is an intelligent universe, and nothing happens by accident. Isvara simply delivers to us the karma that we came here to neutralize. And Vedanta makes that possible. We are not what happens to us. You are only a victim if you fall for those voices of diminishment/fear, as I call them. Don’t listen to them, they are not your friend. Take a stand in awareness as awareness every single time they arise and practise the opposite thought. Just do it. What price freedom? There are always those who have had it tougher than we have. Count your blessings. Start a devotional practice of gratitude, set up altar if you don’t have one. Hand over your fear to Isvara on the altar of karma yoga. You don’t have to carry it. Let Isvara do it.
Another definition of karma yoga is an attitude of gratitude, a loving consecration of one’s actions based on the understanding that life is a great gift that requires reciprocation, no matter how tough the going gets. Gratitude counts most when things are not going our way. We must remember that we have the freedom of choosing and performing actions, and whatever result comes is in accordance with the laws governing the action. This attitude of taking the result as it is, maintaining equanimity of the mind both in success and failure, is yoga.
Failure to appreciate this fact results in low self-esteem, the feeling that “I am a failure” or “I am a victim.” The solution to low self-esteem/victimhood is the understanding that one’s knowledge of all the variables in the field that produce results is and always will be limited. Therefore the results of one’s actions can never be known.
Action can produce likes and dislikes (vasanas) only if the result is looked upon as a success or failure. When the result is looked upon as a function of the invariable laws of action or, what is even better, if it is looked upon as the grace of the dharma field, no new likes and dislikes are created. The existing likes and dislikes will no doubt create desires and produce actions, but new likes and dislikes are avoided. With this attitude towards the result, actions born of likes and dislikes becomes the means of eliminating the very likes and dislikes themselves. The mind becomes free from the agitations of elation (rajas) and depression (tamas).
Remember that karma yoga is not about what you do or don’t do. It never fails, because it is an attitude you take towards action, not the action itself. Karma yoga means fully dedicating your every thought word and action, before they are performed, on a moment-to-moment basis, to Isvara. It is performing one’s duty, cultivating the right attitude toward life, thus conforming to the pattern and harmony of Creation, and you become alive to the beauty of the cosmic order. It takes skill to perform action with the right attitude, which is doing what is to be done, whether you like it or not. Thus likes and dislikes, how I feel about the situation, do not come into play. Your likes and dislikes often prompt you to perform an action which is not conducive to peace of mind, so a karma yogi refrains from performing it, because it is not proper for them. So performing actions in harmony with the natural order (dharmic actions) and avoiding actions that disturb the order (adharmic actions) is karma yoga.
Karma yoga is keeping one’s attention on the motivation behind one’s actions and adjusting one’s attitude when it is found to be vasana-producing. When rajas is strong, the mind cannot observe itself. It is caught up in the future, the thought that things need to be different, so the mind acts to correct the situation, usually in negative ways; it does not act to correct itself. When tamas predominates, the mind is too dull to discriminate; it is prone to denial and avoidance. Rajas and tamas always work together. Where you find projection (rajas) you will find denial (tamas).
Sameness of mind towards success and failure with respect to action is another definition of yoga. When a result is looked upon as a success, attachment arises and when it is looked upon as failure aversion arises. In fact there is no such thing as success and failure. Every result is in accordance with the laws of action. Laws are not made by anybody; they are made by the dharma field, or Isvara, so they can never go wrong. Every result is a right result. The more you appreciate the laws, the more you are in harmony with the things around and you can find your place in the scheme of things.
Action never really fails; it only produces results. A given expectation may be said to have failed, but the one with the expectation has not failed. That I have failed or that the action has failed is the wrong conclusion – only the expectation is the problem. Nobody fails. It is only a matter of wrong judgment, because we are not omniscient and we cannot have the knowledge of all the factors that shape the results of the actions. Only Isvara has all knowledge of these factors.
The other powerful tool at your disposal for mind control is guna management. I have attached something for you to read on that, but you must have read James’ book The Yoga of the Three Energies? If not, make sure you do. Understanding the gunas is the key to understanding Isvara and what is happening not only in “your” mind but in your environment, of which the mind is an extension.
There is much about the jiva we must love and accept as it is. We all come in stamped a certain way and are moulded by our karma, which most likely will never change that much. With Self-knowledge, what changes is how we relate to it. The pain/victim vasana combat will end, you’ll see. One day you will notice that it is just gone, and you never saw it leave. These are the fetus-in-the-womb samskaras, and they leave only at Isvara’s behest. So while we may feel like we must keep up the good fight in the boxing ring with them, and it’s true, vigilance is required because they do cut you off at the knees if they get the chance, nothing you “do” can get rid of them, other than take a stand in awareness as awareness, practise the opposite thought. Look them directly in the eye through the lens of the scripture, faithfully sticking to your sadhana and living a beautiful dharmic life even though the jiva is convinced it is damaged and needs to get love.
Please put up a Post-It reminder to Self: moksa is not about perfecting the jiva. Dare to be so free as the Self that you are totally okay with being as you are as a jiva. And when that victim vasana pops up like an unwelcome cork in the ocean of samsara, dismiss it immediately.
There is no easy way to dissolve past hurts other than applying the knowledge day by day, thought by thought. Don’t get disheartened, you are doing really well. Dispassionate self-honesty is a non-negotiable requirement if you truly want freedom from suffering. Pat yourself on the back for not giving in to despair or self-pity. You are the Self, you will prevail over anything this life can throw at you.
Sarah: Thank you so much for this response. I keep reading it and finding more and more helpful information.
I have had a few “episodes” since getting this email and I have tried to take a stand in awareness and see that the memories are just waves in the ocean. They do not change me. I remain the same. I think I have found this difficult in the past because I expected I would feel better. But I still experience the sickness, tension and “dirty feeling” but it does eventually pass. I have to accept that it feels unpleasant. Perhaps I wanted a magic pill to take it away. I know from other vasanas that no longer trouble me that it will eventually go; as you said, I didn’t even notice them leave. It gives me great confidence when you say this one will go also. Perhaps what I have been lacking is the determination to keep going when I don’t seem to “get better” and I didn’t really believe it could change.
I like what you said about loving the jiva. This seems very important, instead of playing the victim, just love her and the time it is taking to move through this vasana. It’s all happening as it needs to so why not love her as she is! I don’t need to be in a relationship and boundaries are healthy for professional relationships, so there is nothing to worry about. Phew!
I also really appreciated the advice about karma yoga. I have previously just done prayers and consecration of my actions in the morning and then gratitude before bed. Maybe some surrendering in the day if things don’t go my way! This is great, but I see now it’s not enough. Since reading your email, I have been trying to do it through the day, with every new job or task. It’s very different, and I found it makes action lighter or I don’t feel it’s “me” doing it. Half the things I do on autopilot, so it’s hard to change this rhythm. Now I see it’s not me doing it anyway. I’m a robot! All this has made me laugh, and I’m determined to keep at it. So thank you for explaining it to me so clearly. I have read all James’ books, but it’s easy to think you are understanding. It needs constant application.
I have also been working more on gratitude and I can see that if I hadn’t been raped (that was my hitting bottom) I might never have stopped drinking, I might not have got into yoga or found James’ book. So really the worst thing that happened might be the best. It’s finding that gratitude and changing the story. It helps.
I was feeling lost before I sent that email and now I’m clear, determined and passionate about Vedanta again. I am going on retreat for a week studying scripture, so that will of course help.
Sundari: I am very happy for you reading this email, good for you. Self-knowledge is not a magic pill for the ego nor does it give it immunity against what seems like terrible, outrageous karma. But, as you so rightly have seen, there is a gift in everything that “happens” to us. Isvara does not make mistakes in facilitating our karma. I have great compassion for what the jiva must go through to win freedom from bondage to the causal body, it is no joke. The last stage of Self-inquiry is the toughest for this reason – it requires that the knowledge transforms all our emotional trauma and agitation into devotion to the Self. I have attached a beautiful poem written by a friend of ours that captures this battle so well. Never give in or give up, you are on the Vedanta bus and don’t have to worry where you are going or what is the purpose of life anymore. You have “arrived” because you are, and always have been, the Self.
Rest assured, if you leave your jiva life story on the altar of karma yoga and entrust it to Isvara, without losing hope or becoming despondent when it seems there is no change in status, the knowledge WILL work to remove the pressure of the vasanas. It must because there is nothing more powerful than Self-knowledge. You absolutely can trust it. Although it seems to “take time,” nothing ever changes you, the non-experiencing witness of the jiva. And though freedom is not about perfecting the jiva, it is about giving it a good, happy life without worry or fear.
Remember that freedom from and for the jiva does not specifically mean how you experience as a jiva changes – that is not the aim of Self-inquiry, because all experience is in mithya. All that changes are how and why you contact objects. Satya and mithya are not in the same order of reality and never meet. If you can always remember that, you will start to develop non-dual vision. Everything the jiva experiences, no matter how real, happy or painful it seems, never ever touches you, the Self. The Self never “becomes” the jiva, even though its essence is jivatman, the Self. Duality is a superimposition on non-duality, and not real. You need nothing other than Self-knowledge to be happy.
However, how the jiva experiences does indirectly change quite drastically once the binding vasanas have been neutralized by the knowledge. When you truly realize that you cannot be the jiva AND the Self, that the jiva is merely a construct with a dependent existence on the Self, but as the Self you are ever free of it, that’s moksa.
When dedication to karma yoga becomes your default approach to everything, life does lift. Of course it will – you no longer have the existential angst of trying to “do your life.” Isvara knows much better than the jiva does what is best for you and will give you what you need, one way or the other. It is futile to resist and soul-destroying to be bound to the doer/ego. Let it the jiva story burn in the fire of knowledge. It is not yours anyway. Life is beautiful then, you can see the order and intelligence at work and you know you have nothing to lose or gain, because you are the eternal, unchanging fullness that gives meaning to everything.
~ With much love, Sundari