Working Out Your Karma

I have been in a very unhappy marriage for the last 10 years. There’s no affection, no sex, no kindness, no warmth, no communication. My wife has given me the silent treatment for the last 2 years. I am slowly going insane.

I realize that she is I and that I am she. There is only Self. So my question is the following: Would you stay in such a marriage if it drives you insane (literally) just to work out past karma? Or, would you leave? I remember the Buddha left his wife and children behind. Very confusing because he must have realized all was Self and that any action like leaving a wife and children behind was thus futile (there is no such thing as divorce; Self always is).

Not sure if you are married but you are a realized person so I wanted to ask your opinion. Sorry for the deep question.

Thank you,
A

V:  I’m sorry to hear that you’re unhappy but I’m a Vedanta teacher, not a marriage counselor. So I am not qualified to answer your question about marriage.  

But I can address your understanding of self and karma.  Realizing the non-duality of the self does not have anything to do with passively accepting one’s circumstances on the basis that they’re just an illusory appearance of one’s own self.  Sameness only applies at the absolute level of the self.  It does not apply to everyday circumstances.  In other words, not everything in life is equal, just because it’s all the self.  Some things are, relatively speaking, better, healthier and more constructive than others. 
 
Further, working out karma doesn’t mean accepting suffering and unhappiness.  Sure, everyone will have some degree of suffering and unhappiness in their karma.  But karma is not fate.  The point of the theory of karma is to put you in the driver’s seat. It says your current circumstances are the product of your past choices and actions.  The implication is that your future circumstances can be influenced by your current choices and actions.  

So once again, I am not qualified to give you relationship advice.  Nor am I interested in doing so because my purpose here is to teach Vedanta.  But I hate to hear that you’re unhappy.  So I wanted to say that Vedanta, non-duality and karma all allow for positive change in one’s “personal” well-being.  They are not in conflict with you doing what you feel is best for your happiness.  The point of this teaching is peace of mind.
 
All my best,
Vishnudeva    

A: Your answer is incredible and I quote only partially: “But I can address your understanding of self and karma.  Realizing the non-duality of the self does not have anything to do with passively accepting one’s circumstances on the basis that they’re just an illusory appearance of one’s own self.”

I was stuck with this question for so many years and you understood it and gave the answer I was looking for so I will re-read it because it is so very very valuable.

Thank you very much,
A

Emotional Zombie

Hi Vishnu,
In your reply to a recent questioner who was asking about the role of joy and indeed other emotions obtaining in the mind after self knowledge, you said that ‘over time the mind slowly becomes less happy, sad, angry or otherwise emotionally disturbed’.

Now, I don’t believe you are advocating becoming an emotional zombie here. I believe what you meant was what the Buddhists call ‘equanimity’, a preponderance to less and less emotional extremes. This is actually required before self knowledge, but it continues to bed in after self knowledge.

However this doesn’t mean you are never emotional, relatively speaking, but you are less prone to veering from extreme to extreme? Having no emotional responses would be pretty useless, not to say impossible anyway, but that’s not what you’re saying. 

Vishnu:  Correct. 

D: One way I thought about it is if feeling/emotions are a tone, then equanimity is in the mid range, it becomes your home setting, and while it fluctuates up and down from there, the mid range becomes the centre around which it revolves, rather than veering all over the place. Or another way is to think of it as a volume control, set to mid volume: it can, and does, go up and down from there but in a moderate way, rather than as if some madman was spinning the dial wildly one way or another!

Vishnu:  These are great metaphors.   

D: Of course, there will always be times when it does veer to extremes, that’s part of the human condition and will happen forever. But over time should occur with less frequency.

V: Yes, extremes will surely still occur.  They may occur less frequently or they may not; extremes may go away for a long time only to unexpectedly come back.  It all just depends on the person’s mind.  Since 1) The mind is not totally under our control and 2) We are not the mind, this is of no ultimate consequence. 

 D: Vishnu, would you agree that we are *always* feeling something, because emotions are generated by thoughts, (even when we’re feeling numb, that’s actually still an emotion/feeling tone: we’re ‘feeling’ numb), so ‘transcending’ emotion is not about not having emotions, which is actually impossible anyway, but about realising they don’t affect your true nature?

Vishnu:  Exactly.  The relative person has a modicum of control over how their mind feels.  But in the end, the mind is going to do what it’s going to do.  People who continue to try to make their minds a particular way in order to prove to themselves or others that they’re enlightened clearly have missed the point that enlightenment is about knowing that they are not the mind, or to me more accurate, that they are not affected by the mind.  

That means having an agitated mind does not make you any less the self; or relatively speaking, less enlightened.  Having a peaceful mind doesn’t make you any more the self; or relatively speaking, more enlightened.  You are the self either way:  that’s just a fact.  Recognizing that fact, relatively speaking, is “real” enlightenment, not trying to make the relative person think, act or feel a particular way, which is the textbook definition of samsara.      

Don’t get me wrong: Having a peaceful mind is a good thing. And striving to be the best person you can be is a constructive and worthy undertaking. But it’s not enlightenment, which clearly shows you that you are not a person, or more accurately, that you are not affected by the person in any way whatsoever, good or bad.   

D: I’m always reminded of the story of Ramana, who, after watching a travelling stage play about a heroic quest of some saint or other, turned around to his followers in floods of tears! They were all shaking their heads, saying ‘how can Ramana be affected by such aspects of dualism!’ But Ramana simply responded by saying ‘how can one not be moved by such tales of heroism and self sacrifice!’

I always find that funny, as he was just acknowledging the human aspect of his nature, which was perfectly ok, whereas his followers, clearly showing incomplete understanding, just didn’t get it, just like many a neo-advaita teacher today, many of whom seem keen to portray him as some remote, absolutist godlike figure, which is more of a caricature than anything else.

Vishnu:  As you’ve pointed out, this kind of misunderstanding is common in the so-called spiritual world. This is because self-realization is internal and its outward manifestation as certain behavior depends entirely on the previous conditioning of the self-realized person’s mind. For the self-realized person who knows directly that they’re not actually a person, this is not a problem; they let the apparent person be how it is, knowing it doesn’t reflect on their true self in any way. They witness the apparent person naturally responding to its environment, without judgement.

But for those still seeking self-knowledge, this can be confusing. Through no fault of their own, they’re forced to evaluate a self-realized person based on their preconceived notion of enlightenment, which is inevitably linked to their idea of what an enlightened person’s behavior or temperament should be like. And no amount of explanation can dispel this confusion: It can only be resolved by following self-inquiry to its logical end, which is the direct intuition of the fact, “I am the limitless self. I am not defined or affected by the condition of the body and mind.” When that is known the question of performing certain actions or abstaining from particular emotions become moot. In his Dhyanasvaruam, Swami Teyomayananda illustrates this point nicely with the following quote from Jivanmuktananda Lahari:

“One whose ignorance has been destroyed by knowledge given by the guru never gets deluded as he goes around roaming the city, seeing and enjoying the beautiful sights, men and women dressed and decorated, as he knows that he is the witness of all. He is silent with the maunis, wise amongst the wise, scholary amongst the scholarly, sympathetic to the miserable, rejoices with the happy, enjoys when he gets pleasurable objects, acts ignorant among the ignorant people, youthful with the young, displays great oratory skill in the company or orators and is a total renunciate amongst the reununciates. Blessed is the one who has conquered the three worlds.”

All my best – Vishnu 

Bliss of Brahman

Vishnudeva,

I have two questions:

1.You’ve said that during meditation we can observe our thoughts pass by and deduce that we are not our minds. But at other times we identify with our thoughts and our actions are led by the mind mostly. Why is this so? Is having a constant reminder that we are not our thoughts the only way to break this identity?

Vishnu:  Yes, you are correct. You learn not to identify with your thoughts through practice.  Normally we are so wrapped up in our day to day affairs that we don’t notice that there’s a “gap” between ourselves and our thoughts.  We’re too distracted to notice that we aren’t actually affected by our thoughts.  Meditation helps to get rid of the distraction long enough to draw our attention to this fact.  Once we practice long enough, we can bring that perspective gained from the meditation seat into our day to day lives.     

2. My second question is a speculative one. It is about the bliss of brahman.  As false and temporary it may be, we are all aware of the pleasures of the mind. On the other hand, identification with the atman seems a bland affair (from the perspective of the mind). Sure, we will be freed from the problems of the body and mind, but where is the positive joy in it? Can you please clarify on this?

Vishnu:  What more could the mind want than to be free from problems?  That’s all it’s seeking through trying to get what it wants (positive joy) in the world anyway.

Trying to describe what it’s like to know you’re not the body and mind is impossible without experiencing it yourself.  For instance, I can tell you in painstaking detail about the town I grew up in.  You’ll then naturally form some idea of it in your mind.  But until you actually see the town for yourself, it will be just that, an idea.  And some of the ideas you form in your mind will inevitably be distorted or incorrect.  Until you actually go there, you’ll never know what my hometown is really like no matter how much I describe it.  

The best I can say is this:  Imagine having a terrible toothache.  It causes you great distress and pain.  You go to the dentist who says the tooth must be extracted.  The process of extraction takes work and even more pain.  But when when it’s over do you feel a positive sense of joy?  Not really.  The offending pain is simply removed and you return to your normal state.  If anything, all you feel is relief.    

Similarly, when you have the terrible toothache of Body-Mind Identification, you go to the Vedanta Dentist who recommends extracting the Body-Mind Identification with self-knowledge.  This extraction takes much effort and is coupled with the additional pain of giving up the idea if yourself as an individual person, an idea which the ego cherishes so dearly.  When the process is over, your mind is not flooded with positive joy.  It merely returns to its natural state of peace, which is really just your true nature as brahman.  And brahman is naturally unperturbed by the state of the body-mind.  

This doesn’t mean your mind will never be happy, sad, angry or otherwise disturbed.  But when it happens, you know it has absolutely nothing to do with you.  And the longer your mind dwells on that knowledge, it slowly becomes less happy, sad, angry or otherwise disturbed.  

Truth be told, if one wishes to have more positive joy in their mind, self-inquiry is not necessarily the way to go.  Instead, they should vigorously root out all conflict in their personal relationships and strive to be content with a simple lifestyle.  They should impeccably follow their personal dharma as well as the dharma of the society/country they live in.  They should root out unnecessary desires and attachments.  They should practice yoga and meditate regularly. Granted, in order to prepare one’s mind for self-knowledge, one should be doing all of these things anyway.  Joy will follow.  But then through self-inquiry one goes beyond even joy (and sorrow) with self-knowledge.   

I say this because Vedanta approaches the situation of joy from an entirely different angle than other paths.  It entirely destroys your identification with the entity (the mind) which experiences positive joy.  So the question of experiencing positive joy becomes irrelevant in light of knowing that you’re the self.  This doesn’t mean the mind won’t continue experiencing periodic bouts of positive joy, just like it did before self-knowledge.  But you don’t get wrapped up in the joy or attached to it, feeling like you need the joy to be okay.  And the flipside of the coin is that you don’t get wrapped up in sorrow or feel the same kind of aversion to suffering when it enters the mind because you know without a doubt that it isn’t affecting you in any way whatsoever.    

All my best – Vishnudeva          

 

 

Self-inquiry for busy people

Ava: If I don’t know the self, how can I become established in its point of view?  

Vishnu: By being taught scripture. It tells you about the nature of self (which is just your true nature), it tells you the self’s ‘point of view’ (which is really just your true point of view) and then shows you how to think from that point of view until you directly realize that it’s already your own point of view (and always has been).  

The scripture tells you that you, the self, are the limitless, non-dual, ever-present, eternal, unchanging ‘witness’ of everything. You lack nothing and aren’t affected by anything. In other words, you are completely okay at all times and in all circumstances.

Taking into account what the scripture says about your true nature, examine your fears and desires. If you lacking nothing, are your unnecessary desires warranted? If you are unchanging is there any reason to hang on to unreasonable fears? This is one way to take the ‘point of view’ of the self.

Another way is to remember the scripture’s assertion that you are the unchanging, ever-present reality in which all objects appear, objects being any aspect of external experience (people, places, things) or internal experience (thoughts, emotions, memories). Since you are that in which the objects appear, like a movie screen in which images appear, you cannot be the objects that appear in you, the same way that a movie screen is never the images projected onto it. 

Since you are unchanging, you cannot be an ever-changing object. Since you are ever-present, you cannot be a transient object. Applying this logic to your everyday experience on a moment-to-moment basis is another way of taking the ‘point of view’ of the self. It is called the discrimination (viveka) between the self (atma) and the ‘not-self’ (anatma), or atma anatma viveka. It is continuously distinguishing oneself—unchanging ‘witnessing’ consciousness—from objects. 

Ava: How can I be in the self when I’m surrounded by friends, family, work etc. and not just when I’m by myself?  

Vishnu: It just takes practice. It’s like learning to ride a bike. First you have to have a strong desire.  Otherwise you won’t have the will to get back on the bike when you fall off. Then you simply get on the bike, fall off, get back on and fall off again and again until you develop the ability remain perfectly balanced and ride. After a while, it becomes so second nature to ride the bike that it doesn’t require as much effort. You may even be able to take your hands off of the handlebars!

With Vedanta, you also need a strong desire, specifically the unyielding desire (mumukshutva) for liberation (moksha). Without this, it’s difficult to muster up the effort required to bring the mind back to the point of view of the self when it gets distracted. You simply have to try, get distracted, try and get distracted again and again until the mind remains firmly established in the point of view of the self.

Although thinking from this point of view starts to become second nature, unlike the bike example, don’t be tempted to take your hands off the handlebars of inquiry, so to speak. Self-ignorance is persistent and tricky so if you stop paying attention to it before it’s fully rooted out, it will come right back.

Finally, looking at your initial question from the point of view of the self, ask yourself this: If I am already the self, how you can I ever not be in the self?

Ava: This isn’t coming naturally for me.  It takes effort and concentration which hard to do when I’m busy non-stop and don’t have time to reflect on it.

V: Again, it takes no effort to be in the self because you are the self. It is the most natural thing there is. The hard part is to see that this is true.  When it’s not clear that you already are the self, a lot of effort is required to conduct dedicated self-inquiry, and no, this does not come naturally. It just takes hard work, plain and simple.

Still, it helps to take an objective look at your life and find out if there are people or activities that are needlessly taking up your time (and thus distracting you from inquiry). You might be surprised. Keep only what is essential, get rid of the rest. Whatever is essential, do with a positive attitude.  And do it for it’s own sake, not getting overly concerned with the result.  

Ava: Can people really get self-knowledge when they don’t have a peaceful environment to do self-inquiry?  

V: Absolutely, assuming you are properly qualified—meaning mentally prepared—because self-inquiry is meant to go on at all times and in all situations. It is equally important in times of quiet contemplation as it is in times of stress. In the scriptures there are many examples of enlightened people who had families and busy lives.

So, in no uncertain terms, let me repeat that moksha is possible for any qualified person irrespective of their life circumstances.

And not to put too fine a point on it, saying “I’m too busy for self-inquiry” only means, “I’m not serious about self-inquiry.”  Why?  Because people always make time for what is most important to them.  

Sincerely,
Vishnudeva

Have a Question?

Belief in God

Don:  Hi Vishnu, I read your articles regarding God and atheism in Vedanta with interest.  I read in one of your posts that Isvara, (the apparent, manifest brahman) is a matter of speculation.  Now I’m assuming by this you mean Isvara as some kind of personalized deity?  I may be wrong here, but I always thought that the Vedantic interpretation of Isvara meant the bundle of laws that govern the apparent manifestation (of the universe), not a being as such.  Isn’t it the case that Vedanta IS essentially atheistic anyway in the ‘anthropomorphic man in the sky’ sense?

I think the assertion of Isvara as the manifest order is self-evident. We can be fairly confident that the laws which govern the apparent universe serve to benefit the Whole and keep things ticking over in an orderly fashion, just as karma yoga suggests, not least because we can see for ourselves that the universe has been around for 13.8 billion years or so, so it clearly operates in a self-regulating manner which ultimately serves to support the Whole.

Furthermore, the related concept of karma seems reasonable since if we accept the non-dual nature of existence, then whatever you (the apparent you) do to someone or something else, you are essentially doing to yourself, and so at some point the results of that will be experienced.

Swami Dayananda talks about the implicit order we can observe in everything, which is supported by science. So we can observe a psychological order, a physical order etc.  And this collective bundle of order is essentially what we mean by Isvara

Any thoughts you have on this are appreciated!

Vishnu: My thought on the matter is this:  I respect your viewpoint even if I don’t agree because I think people are free to believe whatever they want regarding the workings of Isvara, God or the any other aspect of the apparent reality (especially considering that’s what they do anyway).  So if you believe that Isvara is a self-evident truth, good.  I have no reason to try to convince you otherwise.  I write my articles with the idea that people can take or leave whatever they wish.  I’m no ultimate authority on matters of belief because belief is purely a personal decision. 

I hope that helps. 

Otherwise, all of the answers to your questions are contained in the satsangs “Who Knows?” “A Progressive Vedanta” and “Drop the Boat.”  If you agree with what I say, that’s fine. If not, that’s also fine.  Your peace of mind is the point, not conformity to a certain viewpoint, mine or anyone else’s. 

Now I have a question:  Is what I’m saying about Isvara causing you some kind of doubt?  Is it affecting your self-inquiry?  If so, what is that doubt? Please let me know.

Don: I did like your “Drop the Boat” post. It reminded me of an article from a Zen guy, can’t remember who now, but he came to the same conclusion as you, that the last thing he had to let go of was Zen itself! As it was such a beautiful teaching he didn’t want to let go of it, but ultimately, as you found, he realized he had to “drop the boat” so that he could get on and enjoy his life. And of course the teaching wasn’t going anywhere so he could still love it—He just wasn’t attached to it. 

Vishnu: That perfectly summarizes what I said! 

Don: I think what’s been fueling my original inquiry (rehashed here) is a latent attachment to the concept of god. Upon analyzing this, I think it stems from the concern that the world will be less wonderful or awe-inspiring without.  In others words, I’m worried that dropping (belief in) god would lessen my enjoyment of life.

V:  In a way I think it can, especially if someone has a generally positive notion of God.  In that case, as you said, it may take a bit of awe out of their life.  Luckily for those kinds of people, Vedanta never really asks anyone to give up their belief in God.  They’re only asked to analyze their belief that they’re fundamentally different from God, whether their idea of God is the stereotypical Man In The Sky or the Collective Bundle Of Order (Isvara) that’s beloved by intellectual leaning Vedantins.   

In the relative world, if the Man In The Sky exists, he depends on existence itself to exist.  If a Collective Bundle Of Order exists, it depends on existence itself to exist.  If an individual person exists, they depend on existence itself to exist.  As existence itself (brahman), all three are fundamentally the same.  Recognizing that you are brahman and everything you experience is brahman is the point of Vedanta, not getting rid of belief in God.  For those who don’t see any reason to give up their belief in God, consider this verse by Shankara: 

“Even when I am no longer duality’s slave, O Lord, the truth is that I am yours and you are not mine.  The waves may belong to the ocean but the ocean never belongs to the waves.”

– Six Verses to Vishnu V. 3

Shankara recognizes that as pure existence (brahman), he is non-different from the MITS/CBOO.  He has non-dual vision.  And yet, because the illusion of the world remains, he acknowledges that on the illusory level the difference between the individual person and the totality of the cosmos still obtains. While Shankara fully understands that he’s reality itself, on the level of the apparent individual he still stands in awe of the wonderful and mysterious total.  To use a metaphor, a wave (the individual person) is never the ocean (MITS/CBOO) but despite that, both are the same as water (brahman). 

Now, I’m not saying what you should or should not believe regarding God.  Rather, I’m trying to demonstrate that Vedanta has different options for different people.  In other words, this is not a black-and-white one-size-fits all situation.  People are free to view the workings of the apparent reality (which includes God) in whatever way makes the most sense to them.  After all, the apparent reality is an illusion—How could we come to a definite conclusion about something that isn’t real in the first place? 

Don: However, upon further reflection I don’t think that (dropping belief in god) lessens enjoyment of life because the replacement knowledge is even more amazing. What could be more awesome, amazing and beautiful than the knowledge that everything is me?  While also being clear that I’m free of it (the apparent world), it’s the very thing that allows me to be free to enjoy it.

Vishnu:  Exactly!  Understand that you’re brahman.  Think of God in whatever way seems most reasonable to you.  And most importantly, be happy.  If your current belief in God makes you happy, keep it.  If not, drop it and find something that does.      

All my best – Vishnudeva

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