A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 20

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Janaka said:
13:1 – The tranquility born of the knowledge that there is nothing but the self is rare even for one who wears but a loin-cloth. Therefore giving up renunciation and acceptance, I live happily.

Gaining self-knowledge is no easy task, even for hardcore monks who renounce everything (except, thankfully, their underwear). But the good new is it’s not as difficult as it’s often made out to be.  With a clear mind and a bit of persistence, self-knowledge is attainable for anyone whether they’re an average Joe with a family, a day job and a proper pair of pants or a half-naked monk who meditates in the woods all day.  One of the greatest obstacles to self-knowledge is simply believing that it isn’t possible for you.  Guess what?  It is. 

To give up renunciation and acceptance is to 1) Understand you’re not the one who accepts or rejects e.g. the body-mind and 2) Know that acceptance and rejection are ultimately irrelevant seeing as everything is actually yourself. 

13:2 – There is trouble of the body here, trouble of the tongue there, and trouble of the mind elsewhere. Having renounced the idea of being the body-mind, I live happily.

Trouble belongs to the body-mind alone.  So by giving up the idea that you’re the body-mind, you relinquish ownership of the problems associated with it.  Then, when problems arise, you’re able to take whatever steps are necessary to deal with them, all the while keeping in mind that they never actually affect you.     

13:3 – Fully realizing that nothing whatsoever is really done by the self, I do whatever presents itself to be done and live happily.

I once knew a very intelligent computer programmer who was apprehensive about gaining self-knowledge because he thought it meant he’d have to quit his day job—which he really enjoyed—and become a Vedanta teacher.  His fear was based on the all too common idea that gaining self-knowledge means you have to only do so-called spiritual actions while minimizing or entirely avoiding everyday activities. But since self-knowledge shows that you’re never actually involved in the actions of the body-mind, you can let the body-mind do whatever it needs to do—whether spiritual or mundane—and rest easy.      

13:4 – The yogis who are attached to the body insist upon action or inaction.  Owing to the absence of association and dissociation, I live happily.

Yoga—meaning spiritual discipline—can be an exceptionally useful supporting practice when doing self-inquiry.  How so?  Yoga leads to increased mental concentration, an essential ingredient in the recipe for self-knowledge.  But since yoga is based on purification and control of the body-mind, it comes with the perpetually burdensome notion of doership.  This means when the yoga practice goes well, you associate with that state and feel good.  But when it doesn’t, you associate with that state instead and feel frustrated. But when self-inquiry yields the knowledge that you’re not associated with the body-mind at all, you can find peace regardless of its state.    

Classical yoga, based on the philosophy of Samkhya, posits two eternal realities, purusha and prakriti, which can be loosely translated as spirit (your true nature) and matter (the fundamental building blocks of the body-mind and world).  It says you, the spirit, are suffering because of your association with matter.  But if you can disassociate with prakriti by permanently ceasing the functioning of the mind through meditation, prakriti and its tribulations will disappear forever and you’ll be able to rest happily as an isolated spirit. 

The rub here is twofold:  One, it’s entirely hypothetical that you can meditate enough that your mind completely stops and never restarts.  Two, a non-functioning mind isn’t necessarily desirable.  Because in that case, the joys of life disappear right alongside the problems. 

Luckily, Vedanta is non-dual.  It asserts that instead of there being two realities, there’s only one reality (yourself, consciousness-existence) appearing as two.  That means there’s no body-mind or world to literally disassociate with.  You only have to ‘disassociate’ from the body-mind and world by understanding that they’re merely appearances that don’t affect you.  Essentially, you get to have your cake and eat it to, meaning the body-mind and world can stay as they are and you can appreciate them for whatever they’re worth without the feeling that they’re real entities that define or restrict you in any way.       

13:5 – No good or evil accrues to me by staying, going or sleeping. So, whether I stay, go or sleep, I live happily.

As the self you’re untouched by the actions of the body.  So while good and evil may accrue to the body, it never accrues to you. 

13:6 – I do not lose by sleeping or gain by striving. So giving up thoughts of loss and elation, I live happily.

Whether the body sleeps or strives, you, the self, remain the same.  In other words, you’re always okay no matter what the body gains or loses. 

13:7 – Observing again and again the inconstancy of pleasure and pain under different circumstances, I have renounced good and evil, and I live happily.

Pleasure and pain come and go.  So what’s the point of being excessively concerned about gaining pleasure or avoiding pain, especially seeing as you’re the self, unaffected by both?  Granted, keeping this perspective in mind is no easy task and it’s certain that the minds of those with self-knowledge can still be overwhelmed by joy, saddened by loss and frustrated by adversity.  But by continually bringing the mind back to knowledge that you’re really the unaffected self, these reactions will lessen in intensity over time.  This illustrates a critically important point:  self-knowledge isn’t about having a perpetually pacified mind.  Peace is only a secondary byproduct while the primary goal is to see you aren’t the mind in the first place.  

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