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VEDANTA KESARIThe Role and Transformation of Awareness in Spirituality  

 

 

                

 

               The Role and Transformation of Awareness

               in Spirituality

 

 


               Swami Satyamayananda

 

 

 

     The Grave Scenario

 


     Life in today's society is hectic, harried and harrowing. The "assault" of different levels of stimulus energy, reaching an organism is getting alarmingly tough. In order to interpret some sensations, to counter others and pace itself with the drift, an organism has to utilize greater and greater amounts of its reserves. The level of energy at its disposal is hopelessly inadequate at times to meet the growing demands. This is due to the factors of stress, depression and anxiety that quickly gobble and waste valuable resources. This deficiency is supplemented by the organism's psychic energy - energy that is tapped from the deeper layers of the personality (this is not Sigmund Freud's "drives" of aggression and libido). Psychic energy ought to have been utilized on the psychic plane but when it is tapped for purposes other than its legitimate use then the organism is cutting at its root as it were. It's like constantly emptying a well without it being replenished. This results in the surrounding earth caving in, deforming and depressing the surface contours. Hence we find personalities that are shallow, fragmented, weak, shrunk and unstable. Small wonder that this opens the organism to a host of physical and mental diseases. If this is kept for long the personality becomes easily bored, soulless, hollow, an automation in the hands of external influences. Emptiness stares out from the mask-like features. This caricature can only be impelled by its physical needs, reducing it to a mere brutish existence.

 

 

     Eradicating the Syndrome of Duality

 

 

     Every religious system has evolved its set of ethics besides its theology, philosophy, mythology and rituals. These ethics are naturally directed towards attenuating and eradicating the individual's bad tendencies. In better words: renouncing the worldly aspect of the self. The worldly aspect of the self knows only worldly objects. There is a consensus among the different religious systems that the present self cannot enter the portals of religion proper, of spirituality and of grace, unless purified. The impure, state some religions, are destined only for hellfire. In Vedanta the jiva, the empirical self, through discrimination, needs to give up its false limiting adjuncts in order to actualize its real nature. Swami Vivekananda says, "as the old Christians used to say: "the old man must die." This old man is the selfish idea that the whole world is made for our enjoyment." (1) The process of renunciation of the fictitious self is accomplished first through the performance of good karma; this helps in counteracting old karma and checking the propensity for future wrong karma. These are the uses of ethics. Vedanta then goes further by teaching that merely being good does not confer spirituality, does not help to understand the deeper mysteries of life, because being good also is a limiting adjunct of the jiva. Both good and bad aspects of the self are wrought by karma and karma means bondage; one has to go beyond them. "For fetters though of gold are not less strong to bind." (2)

 

 

     Difficulty Compounded

 

     

     From the above, it is reasonable to state that the various religions do not want to destroy the whole individual but just its excrescences. In some cases however, individuals discover that the remedy prescribed will not only cure but also kill. Swami Vivekananda humorously puts it, "A mosquito settled on the head of a man; and a friend, wishing to kill the mosquito gave it such a blow that he killed both man and mosquito." (3) Now comes the difficult part - what to retain and what to renounce; here religions are divided and quarrel with each other. Then greater difficulty arises when even on knowing what has to be excised, the power to perform the excision is nonexistent or at the most, too blunt for a sustained effort. The jiva is at the mercy of this dual nature of bad and good. Sri Ramakrishna related a very graphic vision of his, "I saw that a jet-black person with red eyes and a hideous appearance came reeling, as if drunk, out of this (showing his own body) and walked before me. I saw again another person of placid mien in ochre coloured dress, with a trident in his hand similarly coming out of my body. He vehemently attacked the other and killed him." (4)

 

 

     How One Is Unwittingly Led

 

 

     In order to simplify and decide matters for us instead of going into theological debates, one needs to just shut the eyes and observe the phenomena of thoughts churning around. Each thought seems like a desire to ride on a roller-coaster. But when seated and strapped in, one cannot dictate the speed, the direction or the duration of the ride. Thoughts and feelings happen without our consent. If we try to follow one thought we discover it as just a link in the chain, which is joined to innumerable ones; thus we are led meandering down confusing pathways. The mind, full of these runaway thoughts seems to have a will of its own and doesn't care for our presence, absence, opinions and control. Even if one can direct thoughts they will be conditioned by old habits and subliminal impressions. If this vortex in the mind slows down, it falls into a torpor and sleep, dragging us along, making us see dreams and nightmares even making one a somnambulist. This impetuous and disobedient part that drags and makes a fool of us in spite of all our good intentions and high words, will have to go.

 

 

     The Commencement of Sadhana, Discipline

 

 

     Speaking of the "greater difficulty", even the mighty-armed Arjuna was sceptical that it could be accomplished, (5) what to speak of ordinary mortals. But there are no two opinions for the solution that the Lord gives in the Bhagavad Gita: practice and renunciation - abhyasa and vairagya. The initial insuperable difficulty of cutting free is strongly encountered but as one starts with even a very mild tempo, it builds up and gathers momentum. It's like starting an avalanche by purposely kicking snow on a mountain slope; the difficulties then seem to look feeble to the growing power that develops within. There is an incident in Swami Vivekananda's life. I was once travelling in the Himalayas and the long road stretched before us...there was an old man with us. The way goes up and down for hundreds of miles, and when that old monk saw what was before him, he said, "Oh! Sir, how to cross it; I cannot walk any more; my chest will break." I said to him, "Look down at your feet." He did so, and I said, "The road that is under your feet is the road that you have passed over, is the same road that you see before you; it will soon be under your feet." (6)

 

 

     The Nature of Awareness

 

 

     Being used to working with tangibles one will cry out, 'Well, what do we practise? And through what do we renounce?' The answer might look ridiculous but it is a fact nonetheless - it is awareness. One practises awareness and renounces the "excess baggage" also through awareness. Awareness is a state of mind. It is preceded by relaxation and followed by concentration, ciharana, which flows into dhyana, meditation; this merges into the lower Samadhi, which again culminates into the higher and higher ones. Here, we shall try and look briefly at awareness and how it becomes dharana. The word awareness is used variously from mild attention to absorption. In order to clear the decks for the explanation that follows, one must at first shed the wrong idea that the contents of consciousness are consciousness per se. Generally one notices only a river flow by without noticing the "unseen river" that is above in the form of water vapour and which is its source. The contents of consciousness is the river; consciousness is the unseen river. All studies like neurology, biology, behavioral psychology, etc. trying to unravel the mystery of consciousness commit this error. "Consciousness is a mere film between two oceans of the sub-conscious and the super-conscious.... I could not believe my own ears when I heard Western people talking so much of consciousness! Why it is nothing as compared with the unfathomable depths of the sub-conscious and the heights of super-conscious! In this I could never be misled, for had I not seen Ramakrishna Paramahamsa gather in ten minutes, from a man's subconscious mind, the whole of his past, and determine from that his future and his powers?" (7)

 

 

     The Scope of Awareness

 

 

     Awareness is enmeshed in complex psychological structures. Liberation from these structures, releases vast amounts of energy that transforms itself into creativity and spirituality. The famous Descartean statement, cogito, ergo sum - I think, therefore I am, (8) - to an adept in meditation is so childish. For centuries people have gone into believing that they exist only on the level of thought. There are immensely greater depths in man, more meaningful, subtler, more pervasive - suksbmatara, mahattara, pratyagatmabhuta. (9) As you read these lines it is obvious that intruding thoughts constantly disturb your awareness. It is also obvious that these underlying autonomous thoughts of similar class, sajatiya, and contrasting class, wijatiya, (10) colour what you understand by association of ideas and what you don't. Taking the eyes away from this page and mulling over what one has just read makes awareness discursive. It is also reactive; every action presupposes reaction, to become aware of what you just read makes this awareness reactive. Awareness is in constant motion flitting from one point to another, it is led by other thoughts and it succumbs to other mental states. The very fact that one is aware of a train of thought being broken by another proves that awareness is something distinct from the chains.

 

 

     A Distinct State of Mind

 

 

     That branch of psychology which takes a mechanistic view of the mind to study levels of attention or awareness, its span, its deficiency, makes use of medical scanning machines like MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), PET (positron emission tomography - this records the glucose being metabolized in different parts of the brain), to show how the brain processes give rise to thoughts. Another method is to measure the electrical discharge of the brain (called alpha, beta, theta and delta waves), by placing electrodes around the head while performing simple tasks like solving mathematical and linguistic problems, painting, talking, even listening to music and sleeping. There is of course a general agreement in the methodology but not in the conclusions. These experiments make use of available technology and the findings are always open to revalidation. One popular experiment is to keep a few subjects sitting relaxed and to record the brain-wave patterns in addition to the pulse, heart rate, and muscle contractions along with body temperature. This is done after flashing pictures, from a slide, on a screen, one after another, with duration of a few seconds. As pictures of trees, suburban houses, desert, city streets, old folks, ill people, food, beautiful faces, etc are projected, each picture evokes perceptible changes in the brain and bodily rhythms of the subjects. But these are largely subjective, determined by a person's background, economic and social status and age. Hence each response is conditioned and cannot be said to be purely objective. The important thing these experiments prove at least to us is: awareness, as it was said above, is a distinct mental state. This state of mind makes changes in the circulatory, endocrine, neurological systems, in short, the whole body.

 

 

     The Method

 

 

     Awareness is like a searchlight that makes any external object or internal thoughts and feelings, leap into prominence from its surroundings. This implies non-awareness and partial awareness of other objects and thoughts, which seem to file past without much ado. In spiritual life, the first work of awareness is that it has to disengage, disassociate, and deny everything but itself. This disengagement is called renunciation, va/ragya; practice, abhyasa, is to get the dispersed awareness into focus. With practice, awareness inexorably gravitates to a centre by leaving the periphery. As awareness matures it is sustained, alert, unbending and non-discursive. It cuts itself into the mind the longer it is held. It no longer reacts but behaves like an impartial witness. Whenever one reacts to something one is bound by the action, for reaction necessitates preconceived notions and this preconception itself belongs to the 'false self that is supposed to be renounced. To the aspirant the contents of consciousness has lost its allurement, what is important is the container, that is consciousness, the "unseen river".

 

 

     Preparing the Ground

 

 

     This state cannot be had for the mere desiring; most aspirants have to plod through a great many obstacles to attain it. Hence mindfulness is highly recommended before the actual practice can commence. Mindfulness implies recollection, constantly recollecting what one is doing and thinking; it brings clear vision and insight. One has to be mindful starting from the grossest actions and then slowly rise higher to the breath, then to thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness changes the personality making it deep and peaceful. Awareness, however, is different from mindfulness, though grounded in it. The majority of aspirants are not comfortable with this due to their nature and upbringing. These types take the help of symbols, forms and a mantra of a god or a goddess. The rationale is: a symbol, form and mantra are divine, and introspecting on it breaks the mind's stranglehold of worldly names and forms - of the framework of thoughts and habits. Thus arises vairagya naturally and contemplating repeatedly on divinity is abhyasa. Besides this, a silent continuous repetition of a mantra in the midst of every activity greatly boosts the mind's tendency to enter into itself.

 

 

     The Inner Process

 

 

     When the actual practice commences, focusing awareness and non-reactivity (to other states of mind) becomes complementary to each other. Both work in tandem to create non-identification with the "false self". The practice simultaneously forms strong subliminal impressions that will hold in abeyance the distractions of autonomous thoughts. Jajjah samskaro'anyasamskara-pratibandhi - he resulting impressions from this obstruct all other impressions. (11) In the absence of anything to pull it down, awareness becomes refined or bare; "choiceless" as some modern teachers like to call it. The next step is: awareness that was apparently divided into being non-reactive and focused, now merge. In this state awareness, like the convergent rays of the sun bouncing back from a mirror, falls back onto itself. It has now become subtle and enters the subtle realms of the personality. Swamiji says, "The power of attention when properly guided and directed towards the internal world, will analyze the mind, illumine facts for us. The power of the mind is like the rays of light dissipated, when they are concentrated, they illumine. This is our only means of knowledge.'"

 

 

     Reinforcing the Practice of Awareness

 

 

     In the subtle realms, awareness encounters the core of the false self, which is aggressive. This, so long nurtured on false things, does not relinquish its hold so easily. A bitter struggle ensues, the stronger the samskaras, subliminal impressions, the more vicious the fight. It is here that the necessity of a guru, religious tradition, mythology, rituals and above all sadhusanga, company of monks, is admitted and realized. These factors act like buffers to absorb the shock of reactions. It was said that awareness is powerful, and practice increases it tremendously, hence it needs careful handling. Swami Vivekananda says, "What can puny decrepit little things do? They will break into pieces whenever the mysterious forces of the body and the mind are even slightly awakened." (12) The factors mentioned above are like a shell that protects a pearl and without which the pear! cannot develop. Or as Sri Ramakrishna says, like a hedge that protects a sapling from being destroyed by cattle. Modern teachers, who remove the practice of awareness from its settings and preach in order to attract people, invariably disillusion them.

 

 

     Snapping the Identification with the False Self

 

 

     Awareness becoming stabilized, focused and deep reveals the inner dimensions of the personality. The real individual, so long smothered by the false self, feels great, natural, and just being oneself. What can this be but feeling freer? Constantly practised, awareness now transforms itself into razor-sharp concentration, dharana. This concentration brings knowledge that not only snaps its identification with the false self but also discovers that the identification itself was false. The mastery over this accumulating power brings to heel everything. The organism is now no longer under the sway of external stimulus energies or is taken around on a roller-coaster ride by the mind. Awareness transforms the personality; it's like uncovering an aquifer in an old abandoned well. As the water gushes out bringing its energy to the shrivelled and empty organism, life becomes meaningful, poised and fuller. Being freed from the thraldom of brutishness, it is on the path of spirituality.

 

 

 


     References:


     1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: 1.88.
     2. Ibid., 4.393.
     3. Ibid., 2.144.
     4. Sri Ramakrishna The Great Master, 1.172.
     5. The Bhagavad-Gita, 6.34.
     6. CW, 8.187.
     7. Ibid., 8.276.
     8. Great Books of the Western World, Descartes, Methods, IV, p. 51.
     9. The Katha Upanishad, 1.III.10.

     10. Yoga Sutras of Patanjaii, 1.50.
     11.CW, 1.129.

     12. Ibid., 3.68.

 

 

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