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Karma, Vasanas, System 1 and System 2
Nick: Since some vasanas are like the baby in the womb, then many of our actions are always gonna have an element of ambition or desire, right? “I am the desire not opposed to dharma.” So, in karma yoga, how do you manage this, mentally being dispassionate toward the results knowing they’re not up to you (based on the needs of the total) while still having a preference over the results? Nobody acts hoping their efforts won’t succeed or hoping others won’t appreciate/enjoy their work, especially us artistic types. Is it just developing more dispassion? Taking whatever comes as prasad? And relinquishing the stress of the future outcomes to God?
Sundari: Yes and yes. We never only ever act for results, but karma yoga is handing over the emotional component of our desire for a particular result to Isvara. We have emotional problems in life because it does not always oblige to give us what we want, and this makes us very unhappy, despondent, depressed. If this is true for you, it means that your primary instrument, your mind, is dominated by rajas and tamas. If it was predominately sattvic it would serve you well and you would accomplish your goals (or not) without complaint. To have happy lives and enlightened lifestyles, the immature dualistic, self-centred inner child needs to develop an objective view of itself and the world. Karma yoga is an attitude we take towards the results of action, surrendering the results to the Field of Existence. Karma yoga is a straightforward, no-nonsense solution and the greatest equalizer in life. It puts the ego in its rightful place – which is: not in charge. Karma yoga transforms a dull (tamasic) and excessively active (rajasic) mind into a clear peaceful efficient (sattvic) mind. It removes anxiety over results, i.e. rajas and tamas.
We all want things a certain way in life, which is fine and understandable. But this suffers one glaring downside: the results of your actions are not up to you. Think about it: if the results of your actions were up to you, you would have everything you want. But we never do have everything we want. So who or what are the results up to? The law of karma in the form of the Field of Existence, my immediate environment, basically the people with whom I have karma – and the three gunas. My primary instrument generates actions which affect the Field, a conscious matrix of laws.
The actions I do return to me in various, not always obvious, ways. My life is nothing but the results of actions I have done before, delivered to me by the Field. The Field is impersonal and delivers the result of the actions of individuals based on the needs of the Field itself. It doesn’t care what I want unless what I want serves the Field in some way.
In terms of my happiness, the Field is all-powerful – and my dependence on it causes suffering. I cannot just walk away from it, because there isn’t anywhere else to go. And my desires command me to act. For instance, if you leave your partner, job or city for a seemingly better one, your desires follow and torture you in the next relationship, job or city. There is no escape. Better to stay and work out your desires in such a way that they don’t come back. And my desires always come back when I have not negated them because the needy attitude that motivates them doesn’t disappear when I get what I want. As soon as I get one thing I want something else.
Karma yoga works on the part of me that acts to enjoy results and owns action and its results: the ego. When you act for results you incur stress before, during and after the action. Karma yoga removes stress by exhausting the fears and desires that produce it. It is existential burnout insurance. Of course it is not easy, because the ego, the most tamasic function in the subtle body, abhors change and does not like to relinquish the idea of control, even though it is not in control of the results in the first place. Rather than follow the foolish advice of gurus who promote ego death, you need to make friends with your ego and educate it, not eradicate, it, not that ego death is even possible. Enlightened or not, you cannot function in the world without an ego. If you patiently educate your ego in the karma yoga spirit and give it noble work, it will be happy. And you will like your ego because it will stop being a problem.
Without the practice of karma yoga, mind or guna management will not be effective and it will be very difficult to follow dharma as well. Life will be extremely difficult indeed.
Oscar Wilde thought that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Well, we know how that works – it just builds stronger vasanas. It is pretty easy to see that the raison d’être of desire is not to be satisfied, but to expand – desire by its nature does not want to end, it wants to want more. Most people believe it is their desires that give direction and meaning to their lives. And it’s true, from the jiva’s point of view. The question is – what do you desire most? We cannot get rid of desire, but we can sublimate it when we understand what it is and what drives it. Happiness is all about thought and emotion management, i.e. guna management.
Baruch Spinoza, considered one of the greatest rationalists of the Enlightenment era, believed that the only way to get rid of temptation is to find a stronger one. He believed not only that the thinking mind is unable to overcome passions, but that the two are not even of equal power. Passions can be defeated only by stronger passions. This is not far from the teachings of Vedanta, which reveal that all our desires/vasanas originate from the macrocosmic causal body, Isvara, and are not actually “ours.” Without a valid independent teaching, Spinoza had no useful advice as to how to achieve sublimation, such as karma yoga.
Here is another long version teaching on this topic:
Karma, System 1 and 2, Isvara-Gunas-Jiva
Understanding that you are a person and what it means to be a person is pretty simple. Understanding that your true identity is consciousness and not the person with a name and a story is not that obvious for most, but providing the mind is qualified, is actually quite logical. Where most inquirers get stuck is in understanding what this means for the person. In order to understand the person and negate the doer (the person identified with the body-mind) as well as render the binding vasanas (conditioning that runs the mind) non-binding, one must fully understand the identity between the person and the gunas/Maya/Isvara as they relate to consciousness. There is no way around this. Many “spiritual paths” have tried to skip this part by simply saying that the person and the objects do not exist. But they do exist. And you can experience them. So, what does existence mean?
Because existence is all-pervasive, the Self is not limited by space; because it is eternal, it is not limited by time. Because it is the non-dual nature of everything, it is not limited by any object. In every way it is limitless, and that limitless manifests in three ways: (1) there is no place it isn’t; (2) it is never not consciousness; (3) there is nothing other than it. The form of a substance does not limit the substance. Vedanta uses the word “existence” synonymously with “consciousness” because many do not believe/understand that existence is consciousness. If existence is limitless, it cannot be anything but consciousness, because consciousness is limitless. But existence is not aware, unless Maya is manifesting. When Maya is taken into consideration, there are apparent objects for consciousness to be aware of.
To exist means to “stand out,” that which can be seen, experienced. Consciousness cannot be seen or experienced unless ignorance has been removed and one has non-dual vision, at which point existence is known to be synonymous with consciousness. Self-knowledge has revealed that there is nothing other than consciousness, even though objects in existence are inert and exist only because the light of consciousness (you) shines on them. Existence therefore cannot be negated and can never be dismissed. You cannot say you don’t exist. You can only say, “I don’t know I am consciousness/existence.” If you have objects in a room, you can remove the objects, but not the space in which the objects exist. The witness to the removal of objects and the space they were in remains. If consciousness, the witness of the perishable and ever-changing world, becomes perishable, how will perishability/changeability be known? You cannot say that change happens without a witness to it. “Cannot be dismissed or negated” means that consciousness never ceases to exist. Just as you cannot hear a sound without a background of silence, you cannot know change without consciousness.
It follows then that when all forms in space are destroyed, formless space remains. Similarly, when all changing things are negated by inquiry, the unchanging Self remains. If you say that nothing remains after everything has been destroyed, we say that what you call “nothing” is you, the consciousness of the “nothing.” What seems like nothing is something, i.e. ever-existent consciousness. To say you are nothing is absurd. It is for this reason that the scriptural statement, “That Self is not this, not that,” negates all names and forms, but does not dismiss the Self. This entire world can be negated, but the negator cannot be negated. It is the unchanging witness, consciousness. The Self is not an agent, so it does not “negate.” It makes it possible for knowledge of the Self to negate ignorance of the Self. Therefore it is said to negate.
What Does “Apparently Real” Really Mean?
For something to be apparently real implies that it is not actually real. But it looks as if it is real, “real” being defined by “that which is always present and never changes,” qualities ascribable only to consciousness, the knower of the apparently real. Freedom is defined as “the ability to discriminate between the two orders of reality – the real and the apparently real – at all times.” Freedom means liberation fromt he idea of being a person as your primary identity in order that as the person you live free of suffering. The person never leaves the apparent reality. The Self is already free. What stands in between (so to speak because there really is nothing “in between,” from consciousness’s point of view) is Isvara, the causal body, or Maya.
To understand what “apparently real” means is to understand the Creator, Isvara. The two orders or ontological categories of Creation are called the cause and the effect – or satya and mithya.
The terms “System 1” and “System 2” have evolved in modern psychology documented by the experimental psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Although Kahneman does not have Self-knowledge, he describes these systems and many other fascinating insights regarding how the mind functions very clearly in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. As explained earlier, from a Vedantic perspective, System 1 is a code term to describe Maya in association with consciousness appearing as Isvara, the Creator, the subject or cause creating the world of objects – i.e. the effects, or System 2. System I, or Isvara, is hence also known as the macrocosmic causal body, or the unconscious, which contains the “personal,” or microcosmic causal body (the subconscious mind). System 2 incorporates the physical body, the conscious mind with its personal subconscious, the five subtle and gross organs of perception, the five organs of action, the five pranas, i.e. the subtle body.
The real usefulness of the terms Systems 1 and 2 either for the seeker of liberation or the average person (samsari) is that they help to understand why reality is not perceived the way it really is. Isvara wielding Maya (System 1) operates the dharma field (Systems 1 and 2) in such a way that the conscious mind (System 2) is deluded. The conscious mind cannot be blamed for this, because the person is programmed by Maya (the power in consciousness to make the changeless appear to be changing) to perceive reality as a duality. The knowledge that experience is meant to deliver is therefore interpreted by the conscious mind, System 2, according to its conditioning, the causal body, System 1.
For the average person who does not question the unexamined logic of his or her experience, duality is taken as a given. Even in the case of the seeker of liberation, when knowledge has removed ignorance of the true non-dual nature of reality, duality still apparently exists, but just like a mirage on the desert floor still exists when one knows it is simply a mirage. The problem inherent in the way reality is perceived by most people is that we do not know what we do not know. Worse, we take ignorance to be knowledge. As long as we are blind but believe that we can see, we continue to suffer under the hypnosis of samsara: the belief that reality is a duality rather than a non-duality, as it actually is.
So what does this mean, and how does it impact Self-inquiry?
System 1 is “our” conditioning, or programming; in other words, how Isvara functions and plays out in our human drama as an individual, or jiva. It is not personal, although it is personalized by the jiva and creates “our story.” System 1 can also be called Maya, ignorance, or the cause of duality, the apparent reality. System 1 can be likened to an information processor, like a computer. It not only provides the raw material for experience, but it is also responsible for it by setting it in motion and recording it.
System 1 is astonishingly powerful and “thinks” so fast that we are almost never aware of the information until after the fact, if at all. According to cognitive neuroscientists, if we had to apportion actual brain function to the two systems, System 1 has 40 million nerve impulses per second, whereas System 2 has 40 nerve impulses per second. This means that System 1 is one million times more powerful, and faster, than System 2!
In contrast to System 1’s computational brilliance, System 2 has an only marginal aptitude for creativity. It is a stimulus-response system, with prerecorded responses totally predicated by System 1. This clearly demonstrates that System 1 controls all behaviour not attended to by System 2, which turns out to be just about everything that is apparently “happening” in present time!
For most of us, System 2, or the conscious mind, is so preoccupied with predictable thoughts about the past, present and future, or whatever imaginary problem absorbs it, that it is unaware of the function of System 1. System 2 contributes about five per cent of our cognitive activity. This means that 95 per cent of our decisions, actions, emotions and behaviour are derived from the unobserved processing of System 1, the causal body. This process is automatic.
It is believed that of the four billion stimuli that are available to the conscious mind at any given moment, only around 2,000 of these stimuli are recorded. And which would these be? Only those stimuli that conform to the individual’s frame of reference: their conditioning. For all intents and purposes, the remaining stimuli do not exist for System 2, although they impact it in unseen ways too numerous to mention. As long as ignorance of our true nature as consciousness, and therefore of Isvara, remains, our “fate” is actually under the control of our conditioning, or vasana load. This is called bondage, and there is no escape from the relentless pressure of the apparent reality, the endless pursuit for completion – the wheel of samsara, as it is called in Sanskrit. Hence the saying: “Life is something that happens to you while you are busy doing other things.” Or: “Man proposes, and God disposes.” System 1 is always running in the background and is the real lead in the movie of our lives, although most of us are unconscious of this fact. We think that System 2, the conscious mind, is making decisions and running our lives.
It is true that relative free will is available for System 2, in that one can choose an apple over an orange, where one lives or one’s occupation. If this were not true, no success would be possible for System 2 and there would be no escape from samsara. Knowledge of how the two Systems operate is a great help in making more intelligent choices for the apparent person. It will go a long way to ameliorate the effect of the extroverted rajasic mind that is beset by the tyranny of its conditioning (its likes and dislikes), driven by desire and buffeted by the uncertainty of life. It is quite clear that there is some other force operating that is the real doer in our lives. However, unless this relative knowledge is seen in the light of Self-knowledge, there is no real liberation for System 2 – the person. Life for the average person remains like a computer game: he or she is making the moves to win the game, but all possible moves are already programmed by System 1 into the game. It is a set-up, a zero-sum game.
What Governs and Creates Personal Conditioning
To effect a change in System 2, whether to gain peace of mind or freedom from the bondage of ignorance, a permanent cognitive shift first needs to take place in System 1, the causal body. The important distinction to be made is that the effects which make the dharma field are Isvara, but Isvara is not the effects. Isvara is the cause, not the effects. The cause does not change, it is eternal and outside of time. The effects change and affect each other, which is why we can render binding vasanas non-binding. The only way for the conscious mind, ego, or System 2 (jiva), to effect a change in System 1 is by introducing a change in the intellect which brings about a change in the thoughts, feelings and the execution of actions in System 2. This is no easy task, because System 1, or ignorance, is hardwired and very powerful. Think of David and Goliath! System 2, David, has to aim that blow to System 1, Goliath, very precisely – but it is possible.
The reason it is possible to effect change in the causal body is that there is a two-way connection between Isvara and the jiva, even though from a psychological perspective, on the relative level, or apparent reality, System 1 and 2 are so unevenly matched. The conditioning that runs System 2 can be changed in System 1 where it originates from, through repeated, appropriate action based on knowledge. When it comes to deeply entrenched conditioning, or vasanas, it is extremely difficult and requires constant vigilance. What this entails is everyday, moment-to-moment asserting and reasserting your nature as consciousness with every thought, word and deed.
If no change of thought takes place in System 2, System 1 will continue running unchanged, by default. Making these changes in one’s thinking in the light of Self-knowledge is what renders binding vasanas non-binding. It bears repeating here that the application of Self-knowledge is hard work, which requires the constant repetition of thoughts of the limitlessness of one’s true nature, which is beyond both systems. Only Self-knowledge is capable of permanently removing ignorance of our true nature. What is clearly not known to Daniel Kahneman and not addressed in his brilliant research is: Who is the knower of System 1 and System 2? Of course this is consciousness, our true nature.
So to sublimate the emotional component of our desires requires that we consecrate them through karma yoga to a higher ideal, a greater passion, devotion to the Self. Our inability to control our passions and emotionality is enslavement, because a person who is subject to them no longer holds his own ground, and against his will will act to get what he wants regardless of consequences instead of correcting his thinking and offering the emotion to Isvara. In other words, all discrimination is lost when we are slaves to our likes and dislikes.
~ Much love, Sundari