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The Vasana-Busting Toolkit
Rory: The purpose of this article is to bring together all the tools I’ve found helpful and effective in dealing with and managing the vasanas: those binding thoughts, compulsions, emotions, behavioural patterns and belief systems that cause so much agitation to mind and body.
Vasanas can be “positive” or “negative” in nature; or it might be better to term them “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Healthy vasanas are those habits and patterns of thought and behaviour that have a beneficial effect on the mind and body, which bring peace, harmony and balance. Examples might include a commitment to Self-inquiry, study of the scriptures, meditation, yoga, good eating, the steady practise of karma yoga and the ability to question and reframe agitating thoughts. Unhealthy vasanas are those compulsions, addictions and self-destructive patterns of thought and behaviour that have a deleterious effect on the mind and body – of which there are too many to mention.
Mind management is an essential component of Vedanta because, as Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita:
“Without a peaceful, stable mind, contemplation of the Self is impossible. When one lacks the ability to contemplate, there is no peace. Without peace, how can there be happiness?”
The mind is our primary instrument for transacting with the world. Just as a grime-covered mirror cannot reflect the sunlight, a dull or agitated mind is an unfit receptacle for the liberating light of Self-knowledge. That’s why Vedanta repeatedly emphasises the necessity of a qualified mind.
In order for Self-knowledge to equate to liberation, the student’s mind must be reasonably tranquil, discerning, dispassionate and free from the relentless storm and stress of excess desire, aversion and attachment.
This is by no means an easy feat, particularly in these disturbed and disturbing times. It is, however, a necessary one, and the results bring their own reward. Even without Vedanta, if you learn to manage your mind and deal with the psyche’s binding vasanas and samskaras, you’ll find enjoy a far simpler, smoother and happier in life, in spite of the challenges that inevitably arise in day-to-day living.
Be warned: it will take considerable work!
It’s no coincidence the Bhagavad Gita is set on a battlefield. The battlefield represents the human mind and it’s a war against ignorance. This war will not be won in a single battle, that you can be sure. Ignorance is both hardwired and highly resistant to change.
So please, go easy on yourself. As with anything in life, it takes as long as it takes to free the mind of its binding attachments, desires and addictions. Some people may need the support of a qualified psychotherapist to work through unresolved traumas.
I particularly recommend Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I only know the basics, admittedly, but it’s perhaps the only mainstream therapeutic approach I’m aware of that doesn’t take the ego to be the real self. In fact, ACT objectifies the ego and talks of the Self actually being awareness, or the observer self. It combines mindfulness with CBT tools and emphasises the importance of acting in accord with our true values.
It’s worth noting that Vedanta is not therapy. It is a means of Self-knowledge, designed for people who have already worked through most of their psychological issues and traumas. It’s very likely that most students will still have a fair bit of “stuff” to work through, however, and it is for that reason the teaching offers certain tools and techniques to help purify the mind.
Bear in mind that some vasanas and samskaras are easier to shift than others. According to the Gita, some can be removed as easily as wiping the dirt of a mirror. Others, however, tend to linger like smoke from a fire, which may take some time to disperse. Unfortunately, some are likened to a foetus in the womb; in other words, they must be carried to term and are going to be there for a set duration.
The Three Foundational Yogas
Before we get more specific, let’s start with the basics.
1. Dharma Yoga
First of all, an understanding and commitment to dharma is an essential prerequisite. While Vedic society placed dharma at its very foundation, the same cannot be said of our modern society. This is in spite of the fact that dharma is universal and built into the tapestry of life itself.
Dharma can be understood in three broad categories.
Universal dharma is constant and unchanging throughout time and location and applies equally to all beings. Non-injury is the highest universal dharma. No living being, from the grandest of men to the smallest of ants or amoebas, wants to be hurt. Because we don’t want or expect others to harm us, we know that it’s wrong to harm others. Other universal dharmas based upon mutual expectation include truthfulness, non-theft, straightforwardness and purity, or cleanliness.
Situational dharma varies depending on time, place and context. Whereas taking a knife to someone’s throat is usually an act of adharma and punishable by imprisonment, a surgeon will take a knife to people in order to help or save them, and is thus following dharma. It’s up to the individual to use discernment to follow the various situational dharmas that life presents.
We all have different duties at different times according to our many roles as child and parent, student and teacher, employee and employer, and so on.
Finally, all beings have a personal dharma specific to them. This “svadharma” is determined by our inherent narure, which itself is a product of the gunas and our personal karma. It’s imperative that we act in accordance with this svadharma and follow our nature while observing both situational and universal dharma. We each have a certain role to play in life, a purpose not of our own choosing, but factored into Isvara’s design.
The Vedic varna system highlights four broad categories of person according to temperament: spiritual seekers and teachers, and anyone involved in the propagation of knowledge and education; administrators, leaders and law-enforcers; businesspeople and those with skills in commerce; and those skilled in service. We’re all naturally suited to a particular role, and each role should be seen as an equal and necessary contribution to the society.
Above all else, an unwavering commitment to dharma in all aspects is fundamental to cultivating a pure, peaceful and qualified mind. Even the smallest infractions of dharma create ripples of stress in the mind and invariably come with adverse karmic consequences. The first step to qualifying the mind is therefore to be a dharmi.
2. Karma Yoga
The Gita spends a great amount of time unfolding karma yoga as a means of purifying the mind. Traditionally, only sannyasis (ascetics) who renounced worldly life altogether were seen as suitable candidates for Vedanta, the path of knowledge and liberation. Krishna makes it clear, however, that while sannyasis are able to take the shorter path (after all, lack of worldly karma automatically removes an enormous amount of stress from the mind), those with an active life of worldly karma are still capable of attaining enlightenment as long as they prepare the mind by converting all karma, all action, to karma yoga.
Practising karma yoga means performing all actions as an offering to Isvara, or God/the Divine. Our actions are therefore not undertaken simply to satisfy our personal desires and aversions, but are sanctified as worship in midst of daily living. Our every action, whether grand or trivial, becomes a way of paying the rent to Isvara; our way of expressing gratitude for all the many blessings we have been given in life (including the blessing of simply having a human birth!).
Because these actions are given to Isvara, the results of those actions belong to Isvara as well. It’s Isvara that determines and dispenses the results of all our actions. The only appropriate response is to accept those results as prasad, as a blessing from the Lord. Whether we get the results we intended or something else entirely, our mind is freed of great stress because we respond to situations with objectivity and evenness of mind.
Over time, the practise of karma yoga – converting daily action into worship and accepting the results with good grace – neutralises the mind’s binding desires and aversions. We move from a strictly subjective, ego-driven relationship with life to a more mature, objective viewpoint. We naturally begin to cultivate discrimination and dispassion, two of the primary qualifications outlined by the scriptures.
For seekers with any worldly karma at all – which, let’s face it, is almost everyone – karma yoga is non-negotiable. Without it, you find your mind swept hither and yon by various internal obstacles (your own binding desires and attachments) as well as external factors (situations, other people and the various hardships and stresses of life). Karma yoga is necessary to help manage the mind and gradually convert all personal desires to the desire for moksa alone.
3. Upasana Yoga
Upasana yoga means meditation upon Isvara. This ties in with what is commonly known as bhakti yoga. With dharma as the foundation, the practise of karma yoga will eventually lead to upasana yoga. As the mind becomes more discriminating and dispassionate, it becomes clear that what we really want cannot be found in the world of objects but is in fact the very source and essence of the objects themselves: God!
Vedanta reveals that our understanding of God, or Isvara, is threefold and depends upon the seeker’s level of understanding. Because it’s extremely difficult to conceptualise Isvara as the formless, all-pervading intelligence that shapes the Creation, or even as the very substance of the Creation itself, for many it is helpful to visualise the Lord as a particular form. Hence worship of Isvara usually begins as worship of a personal deity. There are countless to choose from! It’s best to worship a form of Isvara to which you feel particularly drawn. You might want to create a daily puja ritual, offering your chosen deity water, a flower and perhaps fruit or yoghurt. You can chant mantras, which is an excellent purifier for the mind (the very word “mantra” means “mind-protector”). The purpose of such worship is to purify the mind and begin to create a calm, contemplative and devotional disposition.
The next highest understanding of Isvara is as vishva-rupa, or the cosmic form. You expand your understanding of Isvara to encompass everything in the Creation: every being, every form, every flower and blade of grass. The entire world becomes the altar of your worship!
The final and highest understanding of Isvara is as the very intelligence and source of all being. For that, we have the three stages of Vedanta: sravana (listening), manana (reasoning) and nididhyasana (integrating the teaching). As Krishna states in the Gita, the highest devotion is to realise your non-difference from Him.
Upasana yoga is particularly helpful when dealing with difficult vasanas and samskaras. You realise that, as a jiva, you are reliant upon Isvara for everything, much as a baby is completely dependent upon its mother. You allow Isvara to shoulder your burden and you draw upon Isvara’s strength (which is, of course, infinite). That’s the reason programs like Alcoholics Anonymous programs work: by acknowledging that the jiva itself is helpless and instead relying upon a higher power, from which we are actually non-separate.
The key to freedom is the knowledge that all the jiva’s “stuff” – both the good and the bad – actually belongs to Isvara.
You are the Self, satya, and all objects appearing within you – whether the gross objects of the world or the subtle objects of your mind and psyche – are mithya. The ability to objectively discriminate between satya and mithya automatically robs the vasanas of the stamp of “my-ness” given to them by the ego. They aren’t you, and they don’t belong to you. They never did and never will.
As beautifully symbolised by Nataraja, the dancing Shiva, Isvara is doing all the doing here: from the lofty feat of keeping the stars shining and the planets spinning in orbit to the smaller-scale operations, such as keeping your heart beating, your hair and fingernails growing, and generating the thoughts in your mind. All of that is mithya, and mithya is taken care of by Isvara. You are satya: the Existence/Consciousness/Being from which all objects seemingly arise and into which they again dissolve.
Always remember that any thought, feeling, belief or compulsion is an object known to you. Because it is objectifiable and known to you, it cannot BE you. It only has the power to disturb you when you identify with it; when you think it is YOU. It isn’t. It’s a subtle object produced by ignorance, by non-apprehension of your true nature. All that happened was you superimposed satya on mithya; you saw a snake when actually there was only a rope. There never was a snake. The snake was mithya; it appeared to be there, but it was only a misapprehension.
Negating the vasanas as mithya might sound like spiritual bypassing to some, but it is actually spiritual contextualisation. You aren’t denying these issues or pretending they’re not there. You’re just robbing them of the sense self-identification, which was actually the real cause of your suffering. Instead of seeing subjectively, you view them with objectivity, and are then able to deal with them in the appropriate way. By knowing them as just objects appearing in awareness, you shrink them down to manageable proportions.
I’m a huge believer in the power of journalling. It got me through some very tough times. It’s actually a very simple process. You get a notepad and pen and just spill onto the page whatever thoughts and emotions might be troubling you. You give yourself free rein to rant and rave, or to simply write whatever comes to mind. It’s best to do this in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. You don’t have to worry about spelling or grammar, or even necessarily having it make coherent sense. You just spill the contents of your mind onto paper. (Make sure you keep it private and don’t let anyone else read it afterwards.)
I learned this technique many years ago reading a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. She called them “morning pages.” Every morning, you sit and write three pages on any subject, and you do this whether you want to or not, come hell or high water. This serves as a kind of “brain drain.” It relieves the internal pressure of unassimilated thoughts, events, judgements, fears, desires and so on. It gets things onto the page, enabling you to see what’s really going on in your mind.
It also helps you process things and find solutions. Very often you’ll find the intellect stepping in and helping you to make sense of things, interpret things in a clearer light and find constructive ways to deal with particular issues. I recommend this any time you’re feeling stressed or going through a particularly challenging time. It’s a potent form of therapy in itself, I assure you.
Journalling is also an excellent form of nididhyasana. As you work with Vedanta, it’s helpful to keep taking notes and to write the teaching out in your own words. This helps you go through the teaching again and again, allowing it to gradually soak in and permeate every level of the mind. I spent years doing this and found it an invaluable sadhana.
Self-Inquiry and the Pratipaksha Bhavana Technique
This is a step-by-step technique for getting to the root of whatever thought patterns, belief systems and values lie at the root of a particular vasana or samskara. It incorporates elements of Byron Katie’s “Work,” which itself is a combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the Vedantic technique Pratipaksha Bhavana (applying the opposite thought). In my experience, this is best done in writing. So grab a notepad or journal and take some time to answer each question honestly and openly.
1. First of all, identify the thought behind the vasana.
Try to put it into words as a short, simple statement. For example, relationship issues might come down to the thought “I need ____ to appreciate me.” Sometimes it helps to keep asking, “Why is this important?” “Why do I want this?” or “Why is this a problem?” You’ll be surprised how often it comes down to the thought “I’m not good enough.”
2. Identify the guna underpinning this issue.
Although sattva can cause some issues, such as attachment to pleasure and sometimes a sense of superiority, it’ll most often be the terrible twosome, rajas and tamas, at the heart of it. Rajas is responsible for the more extroverting and agitating issues, such as desire, anger, greed and covetousness, whereas tamas is more introverting, deadening and depressive, and is often associated with shame, fear, low self-esteem, etc.
3. See if you can identify the value underlying the thought.
The value at play might be a desire to be loved or to be safe or recognised. It might be a value for status, money or self-acceptance. Inquire into this value: Is this a value that feels authentically true to who you are or is it a value that’s been instilled into you by the society? (See below for more on values.)
4. Now, take a look at that thought, and ask yourself: Is this thought really true?
In order to be true it must be absolutely true beyond any shadow of a doubt. The mind naturally invests our thoughts with truth and legitimacy, when in fact a thought is nothing but a thought; an interpretation; a mentally-fabricated story that may have elements of objective truth, but which is invariably clouded by subjectivity and all kinds of cognitive distortion.
5. Ask yourself: What is the price I pay by continuing to believe this thought?
What is the cost of keeping this thought, this vasana, alive? How does it affect you physically, emotionally, psychologically, spirituality and, in terms of your loved ones, family, job, even leisure time? Explore it detail how it negatively impacts you. Shine the uncompromising light of objectivity and see how your mind begins to lessen attachment to this pattern.
6. How would things be different if you let go of this thought/pattern/attachment/vasana?
As above, explore in detail how every aspect of your life and your body and mind would benefit if you no longer had that thought? By now, you’ve hopefully convinced the mind of the pain associated with this pattern, the need to change it and the clear benefit of doing so.
7. Assume the perspective of the Self; the boundless awareness that you are, and in which this thought or pattern appears. As the Self, how do you view this thought, belief or pattern?
8. Apply the opposite thought.
If your thought was one of lack, adopt a thought of abundance. If it related to the need for a relationship or a certain object, affirm that you are already whole and complete without that. Turn that original thought of pain and limitation into a thought of peace, happiness and limitlessness better reflecting your true nature as the Self. You are replacing a thought of ignorance with a thought of Truth.
9. Find evidence to support the new thought.
The mind, accustomed to the habitual as it is, may take some convincing of this new thought. You may need to keep applying this thought to the mind each time the original thought seeks to reassert itself. This takes vigilance and persistance. It helps to actively look for evidence to support the new thought. Write down three to five pieces of evidence which prove this new thought is as true or truer than the original limiting thought.
This is a great practice – and it really works. At first it may require consistent work. Eventually you’ll find it becomes automatic and habitual as your vasana for inquiry grows. You then no longer automatically believe every thought that passes across your mental landscape, and instead have the ability to look at mental content with objectivity and greater discernment and dispassion.
Dissolving Emotional Blocks
Whereas the previous technique dealt with things at the mental level, this next technique is one of the most powerful tools I ever found for dealing with the emotional level. It’s based on an ancient Taoist technique which I call “dissolving” meditation.
Part of the mind’s job is to doubt and emote. The mind endeavours to make sense of the sensory data relayed by the perceptive sense organs. Emotions are then generated as signals motivating us to act: to advance or retreat, to engage or withdraw.
Neuroscientists have shown that emotions actually have a very short lifespan. The emotion is triggered by the release of certain chemicals which apparently flush through our entire system in the span of a mere 90 seconds! The problem is the mind tends to keep focusing on the thoughts or stimulus behind the emotion, thus continually triggering the emotional response. That’s why the above technique is helpful for getting to the root of those thoughts and breaking the cycle of emotional reactivity.
Some emotions are easier to deal with than others, however. Sometimes when we fail to assimilate our experience, we can be left with unprocessed emotions which we experience as a contraction in our body. Our prana/energy stops flowing as easily and, like water collecting into a puddle or pond, becomes stagnant. This emotional contraction can often be very painful.
The Taoist dissolving technique is extremely simple. If you find yourself dealing with difficult or unprocessed emotion, you simply take some time out and isolate where you’re feeling this sensation in the body. It might be in your chest, abdomen, the pit of your belly or your throat or head.
The key is to assume the role of objective witness, and simply bring your attention to this pain or discomfort. Be curious and open; don’t resist it, but don’t get lost in mental stories about it. Simply be willing to feel it. Get a sense for its vibration and quality. Sometimes it’s helpful to give it a label, but you do so objectively and dispassionately, as though you’re a scientist studying some fascinating phenomena. So you might say, “Here is a feeling of sadness/hurt/anger, etc.”
All you need to do is spend some time directing your conscious attention to this emotion. Although it may be painful, you simply hold it in your awareness, without any sense of resistance and without trying to change it. As you keep holding it in your focused awareness, you’ll find it naturally begins to uncontract and relax.
The Taoist metaphor is that blocked emotion/energy is experienced as ice: hard and unyielding. As you spend time holding it in your attention with laser-like focus, you’ll experience this “ice” gradually melting into water. It’ll start to flow more freely and you’ll feel a great sense of release as it does so. The key is then to keep your attention upon it until this “water” eventually evaporates into thin air. The sense of release will feel extraordinary, particularly if you’ve been carrying this unprocessed emotion for a while.
This simple technique is the essence of simplicity and it works every time. Some emotions are easy to dissolve; just a little focused attention and they quickly disperse. Others take longer and may require repeated sessions. As with all these tools, persistence is key.
Be the Witness
Mindfulness is all the rage these days, and with good reason. The term originates in Buddhism, and the key to mindfulness is being an impartial witness to your experience: your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. By impartially witnessing these gross and subtle phenomena, they cease to pull you into identification with them, which is the source of all misery.
Vedanta’s equivalent of mindfulness is called sakshi bhava, which means “being the witness” – which is, of course, what we are all along! To practise sakshi bhava is to practise Self-knowledge: to take a stand as awareness and know that all objects, whether gross or subtle, are appearances in you and cannot therefore be you. You, the Self, are sakshi, the witness.
The more you simply witness the arising of all the mind’s various thoughts and emotions, the greater power you have over them. The key is to divest them of all subjectivity and to remain objective and impartial: to always see the body and mind and all its sorrows as objects arising in you – “you” being the all-pervading and transcendent awareness that is ever untouched by them.
This will give you greater insight into the workings of the mind. You’ll witness with greater clarity and objectivity the patterns of thought and behaviour that arise and be better equipped to deal with whatever thoughts and behaviours cause agitation and suffering.
This leads to our next practice – objectivity.
The Self is entirely objective. Just as the sun shines upon all beings, saints and sinners alike, the Self is that which allows the entire universe to be, lending its existence and sentience to every aspect of the Creation without a hint of favouritism. It’s the jiva, with its assorted likes and dislikes, desires and aversions, that superimposes a veil of subjectivity upon the world of objects.
Objects themselves are value-neutral. They possess only the value we ascribe to them, and that value is entirely determined by our likes and dislikes. In the Gita, Krishna prescribes objectivity as one of the keys to managing the mind. Objectivity means to strip an object of whatever value we have superimposed upon it and see it as it is – in other words, to reduce the object to its own status: neither fully good nor fully bad.
This is a particularly helpful practice when dealing with objects of desire or attachment. We desire the object or are excessively attached to it because we’ve been investing it with a certain mind-created value.
One of the keys to breaking free of binding desire and attachment is to continuously contemplate the downside of that object. Our tendency to only see the upside, much of which is largely a projection of the mind, is what generated the desire and attachment in the first place. To consciously reflect upon that object’s inevitable downside helps create a more balanced and objective vision.
Manage Those Gunas!
Much has been said about the importance of managing the gunas. In fact it’s so important I should probably have listed this alongside the three foundational yogas. Everything in the material Creation is conditioned and determined by the interplay of these qualities. Therefore the ability to understand and master the gunas is essential to a healthy and happy life.
The latter chapters of the Bhagavad Gita explore the gunas in detail and how they relate to different aspects of life. I also strongly recommend James Swartz’s The Yoga of the Three Energies book, which is an excellent manual for managing these qualities.
I’m not going to go into great detail here. Suffice it to say, as I wrote in my Bhagavad Gita commentary, rajas is your ticket to passion and pain, tamas is your ticket to ignorance and indolence, and sattva is your ticket to freedom.
It’s essential that we learn to burn off excess tamas by cultivating the appropriate amount of rajas. People prone to depression and inertia benefit from going to the gym or any other form of workout. When tamas rears its ugly, apathetic head it’s helpful to stir up a little desire and set some positive goals that are in line with your dharma. These should, of course, be done as karma yoga.
Rajas can be managed by cultivating as sattvic a mind as possible. All the tools above will help with this, including karma yoga, dharma yoga, upasana yoga, meditation and so on.
The entire purpose of spiritual practise is managing rajas and tamas and generating a pure and sattvic mind. When the mind is sattvic, we see clearly and have the ability to exercise proper discrimination and make sound choices in line with our highest values and true priorities.
A sattvic mind is also a happy mind! Rajas and tamas make happiness impossible because both create so much pain and sorrow. If a person does nothing more than cultivate a predominantly sattvic mind, they’ll live a largely happy and satisfying life.
Do a Values Inventory
Although this is last on the list, if anything it should be near the top because the value of values should never be underestimated – and yet frequently is.
Until you have a healthy and dharmic value system your life won’t and can’t work particularly well. Indeed, you’ll find yourself beset by constant conflict and confusion.
Most of our values are instilled into us at a very young age. We don’t choose such values; they’re chosen for us. Some of those values will inevitably be false or harmful ones and that’s why there’s so much suffering in our supposedly “developed” world. Why else would otherwise intelligent people base their level of self-worth on their bank balance or marital status? Or worse, something ridiculous such as how many “friends” they have on Facebook or the number of “likes” they get for their latest Instagram post?
Even though we know such things don’t really matter, many people still have a value for them – and that includes spiritual seekers, believe it or not. This comes down to what we call “partially assimilated values,” which is when we have a value for something, but it may not be a fully assimilated value or it may contradict another value we hold. This always results in inner conflict and confusion with regard to our actions.
Often spiritual people have a partially assimilated value for moksa but also a value for seeking happiness in worldly objects. Which of the two will win out? Whichever value is strongest. Given that our value for materialism has been programmed into us from almost the moment we first developed language and cognition, the smart money is on that.
Our values shape our priorities and our priorities then determine our actions and behaviour, which in turn become the building blocks of our entire life. That’s why it’s essential that we do a value inventory – particularly if you happen to be plagued by troublesome vasanas. Very often a conflict of values lies at the root of it.
It’s vital that we have clear set of healthy values that are in harmony with who we are.
So I suggest getting out the journal and taking some time to figure out what’s really important to you and what you truly value in the depths of your heart.
The alternative is blindly and unconsciously trying to live up to the materialistic and worldly values conditioned into you by family, peers and media. So much of people’s suffering comes from self-judgement and self-condemnation for not living up to their values – which aren’t in fact “their” values at all, but are simply the values they’ve unconsciously inherited from almost the moment they developed language skills.
Chapter seventeen of the Gita provides a wonderful checklist of values for the seeker of liberation. I recommend referring to that and allowing the scriptures to inform your value system rather than the adharma of our consumer-crazed culture.
Don’t be like the ignorant masses and live only to consume. Be a contributor! Make it your highest value to give at least as much as you take from life. Follow dharma impeccably and commit to polishing the mirror of your mind, to not only make it a fit receptacle for the liberating light of Self-knowledge, but to make it shine, to be as true an embodiment of who you really are as you possibly can be.