Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Mindfulness

I received several warnings from devotee friends about coming here to Rishikesh, to stay in a "Mayavadi" ashram. We are generally very protective of our faith, down to its most arcane details, and the idea that it could be challenged is fearful. Over the years, I suppose my faith has suffered as many challenges as anyone's faith ever could have, and this may have inoculated me to the fear of Mayavada. Whether that is good or not remains to be seen.

Certainly I am using the opportunity given me here to look into yoga philosophy a little more seriously than I have in the past, but not with a view to "defeat" it. As a matter of fact, the "defeating" mode is not highly approved in the Gita.

The other night, I had supper with Swami Veda along with a number of his close disciples. The topics discussed were many. One thing that he said, perhaps in relation to the loss of innocence, was that it took him a long time to realize that not everyone was engaged in a search for God. I said I still found it hard to believe. He laughed and said, "You are young yet. Wait till you are my age!"

I mentioned the Guardian discussion page, which is populated mostly by enlightened, non-religious, and even virulently anti-religious people. And yet there are regular columns by apparently masochistic defenders of the various faiths and of religion in general. I opined that I often found myself siding with the atheists and agnostics in many of their arguments, but that I felt this was because religion also is subject to modes of nature and not always and necessarily a positive influence. Swamiji said that he once wrote a book called God. When he showed it to his guru, Swami Rama, he praised it effusively. Six months later, however, Swami Rama came out with a book of his own called Enlightenment Without God.

Of course, I am at the point where almost everything is negotiable except for the ultimate theistic nature of the Absolute Truth, which of course entails a great many other things, too. But in order to understand the transcendental nature of that truth, there is a critique of unenlightened theism that needs to be adopted. The simplistic Christian or Puranic statements that make the performance of external rituals or even inner conversion as synonymous with the highest attainments of spiritual perfection has the disastrous effect of making people think that kanishtha religion is somehow equal to uttama religion.

The abovementioned verses from the Gita seem relevant:


सर्वभूतेषु येनैकं भावमव्ययमीक्षते।
अविभक्तं विभक्तेषु तज् ज्ञानं विद्धि सात्त्विकम्॥२०॥
पृथक्त्वेन तु यज् ज्ञानं नानाभावान् पृथग्विधान्।
वेत्ति सर्वेषु भूतेषु तज् ज्ञानं विद्धि राजसम्॥२१॥
यत् तु कृत्स्नवदेकस्मिन् कार्ये सक्तम् अहैतुकम्।
अतत्त्वार्थवदल्पं च तत् तामसमुदाहृतम्॥२२॥

Knowledge in the mode of goodness is that which sees a single existence present in all things, undivided even where they are divided. Knowledge in the mode of passion is that which knows through their differences the distinct nature of the various spearated existences in all things. Knowledge in the mode of ignorance is incomplete and limited, being needlessly attached to only one effect as though it were everything.

Here is a comment on the above from Swami Veda's introduction to his translation of the Yoga-sutras:
One [approach to Indian philosophy] is that of a pedant bound to one of many philosophical schools who refutes the views of all others and challenges them to prove theirs right and his wrong. Most philosophers of the traditional schools fall into this category, having debated with all other schools for thousands of years. Modern Western and westernized Eastern scholars follow this trend and study each school of Indina philosophy in isolation. It is not intended here to engage in a dispute with them, because the separate schools of Indian philosophy have indeed dominated the philosophical arena for these millennia, each possessing its own closed system of internally consistent values, doctrines and logical development (pratitantra-siddhanta). However, according to Bhagavad-gita 18.22, this approach is darkened knowledge (tamasic jnana).

Another approach is the way of the savant whose primary interest is not in the logical categories only, but who seeks that wisdom from which all logic begins and to which it must ultimately lead. This is the way of reconciliation and resolution of conflicts (samAdhAna), which eventually clears the pathway to samadhi. Such a savant refuses to remain bound within a square or a cube. He must understand the internally consistent logic of the system within a given cube, no doubt, but he must also observe where the external walls of one cube touch those of another; he must then enter the other cube and understand the internally consistent logic of that cube also. Thus, when he has looked at all the interconnected cubes, he sees the whole picture which is based on one or more common principles shared by all (sarva-tantra-siddhanta). This is the way of active knowledge (rajasic jnana) as defined in Gita 18.21.

Vastly improved on the way of that wisdom seeking savant is the way of the wise man, a person of intuitive vision and inspiration, the yogi, who by first looking at the grand pattern sees all the squares and cubes, as well as the spirals, circles and other patterns. By understanding the grand pattern, the little geometric shapes and forms are fully and effortlessly understood. The Bhagavad-gita 18.20 says this is the way of pure, refined and luminous knowledge (sattvic jnana)

A Vaishnava theist might be anywhere on this spectrum. The theistic perspective has to accommodate the non-dual perspective, or it does not achieve that mysterious realm of achintya-bhedabheda.

I asked Swamiji about his affinity for East-Asian culture, which is reflected in the numerous artworks--paintings and statues--from Korea, China and Japan. He answered that he felt more at home there than in India, and in general he feels that people who come from Buddhistic-based cultures are more mindful than in India, where people are in a much more rajasic frame of consciousness.

Last night, again, Swamiji spoke to all the residents of the ashram in a general meeting. About two weeks ago, he talked to the second-year Gurukula students and gave them something of an improptu test about how to teach various yoga postures, diaphragmatic breathing, etc., and was not pleased with the results. So he ordained a ten day teacher training intensive to get everyone properly conscious of the basics.

Some Hindi-speaking student asked him what "centering" meant, as English-speaking instructors were always using the term, so last night Swamiji spoke on the subject of centering, which he related to the concept of mindfulness.

A yoga teacher, in order to be effective, he said, should be centered. Centering begins, he says by placing oneself in the ground of one's identity, whatever that happens to be. In general, as an aside, Swamiji usually talks about hatha yoga as a practice meant for people in the bodily consciousness and meant to facilitate or lead to raja-yoga meditation. So an important and oft-repeated lesson is that we must pick ourselves up from where we have fallen. "If you have fallen in the mud, you cannot pick yourself up from the marble floors of the Taj Mahal."

The centering process is comparable to the yogic concept of smriti-upasthana (sati-patthAna in Pali, Visuddha-magga, See Yoga-sutra 1.20. It intentness of self-observation beginning with the breath, which is the essence of the Buddhist practice of meditation. But it included the concept of mindfulness as usually associated with Zen, meaning attention to the tiniest matters of everyday life—tidiness, precision, cleanliness. Bhakti also requires this mindful attitude, because mindfulness is the essence of the service spirit.

From there he went on to talk about the positioning of the consciousness in the chakras when speaking. When teaching, he said, the consciousness should be in the heart and forehead centers. He went on to explain, giving examples from his own life, that this had made his speaking effective even in mundane situations, like dealing with bureaucrats, etc. The importance of the heart center for the speaker was that it made him intuitively tuned in to the needs of the audience, while the ajna chakra was about harnessing the intellectual faculties.

Although I have only given the sparsest of details from those conversations, they have given me a little more insight into why I am here. It is primarily to learn the lessons of mindfulness. I have always been aware of a flaw in my character that leads me to splinter my energies, dissipating them over a wide number of tasks rather than concentrating on one. I rarely leave a room without leaving something behind and having to return to get it. I may sometimes even have to do this two or three times before I can go on; sometimes I have to return after going a considerable distance when I realize there is something I have left behind, like a wallet, something that was supposed to be in the wallet. Now I have a cellular phone--just one more thing to leave in the pocket of yesterday’s shirt or on the window ledge. Right now I am looking for my beadbag, which I put down somewhere and is currently waiting there for me to retrieve it or until someone returns it to me.

These are just symptoms of a scattered mind. But it shows when I speak, also. I cannot give a lecture without wandering far, far from the original point to speak about things that are only tangentially relevant. Are they interesting? No doubt. Are they essential? Are they the result of a consciousness of what people need to know or hear? Are they the message that I wish to communicate? Do I myself communicate from a position of knowledge and self-groundedness?

When Swamiji was caricaturing the non-centered teacher of yoga, I saw myself in his flailing arms and jerky movements, even in the way I teach Sanskrit to beginners. Nevertheless, I can say that despite the above observations, I can feel that there has been an almost unconscious improvement in these areas, and becoming even more conscious of the need to work on them makes me mindful of another, unexpected reason that I am here in Rishikesh.

10 comments:

anuradha said...

"I opined that I often found myself siding with the atheists and agnostics in many of their arguments,...."

Indeed I recently saw a discussion on BBC (I believe it was Talking Point or something)where Richard Dawkins was attacked from all sides by lame, dogmatic and silently very fundamentalistic people that think of themselves as rational.
It inspired me to read his book "The God Delusion" and strangely enough I find it uplifting, even for a theist like me.
I disagree with his stance that the existence of God is highly unlikely and with a number of other things too. Nonetheless the way he points out many of the inconsistencies in the widely accepted arguments used by theists in trying to proof God or the validity of their holy book was uplifting and funny.

If I am also an agnostic now ? Or on the brink of becoming an atheist ? No, but it surely helped me not to take sides anymore in many of these
debates on the ultimate truth and it made me reflect on many of the things I accept (as truth) only in order to be accepted by my tribe.

"Gaurasundara das" said...

Anuradha, I recently read Dawkins' 'God Delusion' and I was very disappointed by it. I have always admired him because he has written classic texts on evolution etc. that are essential reading for a psychology undergraduate. I had known that he was also an atheist who never resists the opportunity to take a dig at God or religion in his tomes, so I was enthusiastic to read a text that was apparently devoted to the subject.

I'm sorry to say that I found his arguments unappealing, inconsistent, frankly ignorant and sometimes laughable. Apparently I am not the only one who thinks this way as Dawkins has been criticised for this book by religionists and atheists alike. I wanted to write a chapter-by-chapter book review on my own blog but couldn't for lack of time, but some of his observations were frankly embarrassing. His argument basically boils down to: "God doesn't exist because there is no reason to believe that he does." Another one is that science has discovered thing that are infinitely more wondrous than anything found in old texts. A fair point.

Although I did eventually appreciate the book in that it gave me an idea of atheistic thought coupled with a few scientific rationales here and there. I agree that, in general, religion has a long long way to go before it even comes to the point of being worthy of intellectual consideration. Dawkins' arguments, weak as they are, at least give a representation of questions that religion has historically failed to answer.

Right now I'm reading Christopher Hitchen's "God Is Not Great". It is far better than Dawkins in terms of writing style, but I don't think Hitchens is any better at criticising religion than Dawkins. Hitchens' hook appears to be: "Religion houses too many man-made contrivances for it to be taken seriously as originating from a divine source."

Not impressed with atheistic thought so far, although I appreciate the fact that religion needs to come up with some creditable answers. Right now I think religion is on the losing side in the debate.

I sympathise with your feelings about agnosticism or teetering on the brink of atheism. I sometimes feel the same. I only allow myself to read atheistic thought because I have an open mind and would like to hear both sides of the argument. One massive objection I have towards atheistic thought is that it almost always concentrates on decrying Judaeo-Christian forms of religion, I have seen very little in terms of a serious rejoinder to Hinduism and other Eastern religions save a few pro-Islamic sites talking about necrophiliac fire-yagnas and other sorts of nonsense. For example I would like to hear serious criticisms of the principle of karma, reincarnation, etc.

Hitchens' entire chapter on Eastern religions was dedicated to decrying a form of Buddhism. Not impressed.

Jagat said...

There is no need to fear criticism from any quarter. If it does not kill you, it will only make you stronger, as even the atheist Nietzsche could point out.

God appears to individuals according to their level of advancement, according to their position in the modes of material nature. So we should not be surprised that a lot of nonsense goes on in God's name. I keep saying this: for the kanistha, a BIG kanistha is the ideal. But he is still a kanistha for a' that.

God is a vague or "empty" concept (as everybody creates their own definition) and therefore easy to "defeat" (remember that this is a tamasic approach to knowledge) if you choose the particular definition you want to do battle with. If you take a literal view of Krishna, for instance, as residing in a quasi physical world named Goloka, which exists physically somewhere beyond a barrier called Viraja, etc., etc., as described in our texts, then I will not do battle with you to defend their literal interpretation. Someone who does will end up looking foolish and rightly so. Does that mean that we must jettison the whole edifice of Krishna bhakti? What we have to do is work at an analysis of essences based on our own experience.

If you take historical instances of evil done in the name of religion, which is Hitchens' approach, then that is like shooting fish in a barrel. One instance of beatitude defeats all instances of evil.

The point is that we do not have to fear the possibility that religion and spirituality are HUMAN PHENOMENA. That does not discredit them. We are not further along in understanding the purpose of life by giving all the teleological credit to genes that seek their own survival. We need to look for God in the impetus to experience beatitude, to understand human purpose, to perfect our lives on earth as human beings. And that is as true for an atheist as it is for a devotee.

Even if you were to find an evolutionary purpose for such things, that would not diminish their glory and their holiness--even in their failure. Therefore we say api cet suduracharo, etc.

Moreover, the miracles of existence, consciousness and joy, are none of them meaningfully explained by any recourse to science. The key word here is meaningful.

Reductionism is the result of shallow thought. If I think God can be explained away by whatever the latest device of the atheists is, whether it be projection (still a popular one) or memes (Dawkins' gift to posterity), then I am simply taking one side of a circular argument. The capacities and tendencies to look for the ideal in transcendence, whether true or erroneous is, in my opinion, sufficient proof of an existence. Though this argument (a version of the ontological argument) cannot stand the scrutiny of rigorous philosophers, it does not bother me, because I am by the same token convinced of the inadequacy of dry argument to do much more than offer help in cutting away some of the grosser difformities of religious life, and certainly not to touch its essence.

That essence, I am afraid, is something that only the "deluded" can know through experience. This has always been known to the devotees. The atheists may successfully win ALL the logical battles, but fail to provide a single reason for living other than to fill in the space between birth and death. They shall me I am doing the same, (Hitchens would probably say I am benighted, but at least doing no harm) and we will have to leave it at that.

anuradha said...

There are a few books that have helped me to change perspective a little. The were all non-vaisnava and non-vedic books and of course for an orthodox vaisnava that is considered hazardous.
One such book I previously pointed out was 'The Guru Papers; masks of authoritarian power'. As with 'God delusion' I do not agree with all the content, but I can now more clearly distinguish between religion mainly concerned with holding the tribe together and religion concerned with finding truth. As religion moves further and further from the founder (if the founder was considered with truth that is) through time it becomes more and more a tribal thing wielding authoritarian power over its followers.

I can write a book myself about what I think are examples of this, but more personal it means that I myself made holy/sacred certain things that are completely irrelevant (even opposing) to my own spiritual growth. For example..... in my teenage years I spend months figuring out which 'varna' would suit me best while neglecting the context I was brought up in and not finishing high-school because my bhakta-leader in Belgium told me that materialistic school was useless anyway. Mmmmh,... my search for a suitable 'varna' was sacred though, because my tribe pronounced THIS sacred over THAT and 'varnasrama-dharma' is very very sacred. Yes, weird indeed. And dangerous especially when being in puberty. Identity crises all over. Concluding that my own religion (one I chose to connect with and was not born in) is authoritarian in many ways and doesn't always allow free thinking was revealing in a predictable kind of way...
I became disgusted without knowing why and left the tribe.
I came back though after a few years because living without religion was also not satisfying to me.
But now I didn't want to make the same mistake again and tackling sectarianism and authoritarianism became key themes in my life. But it is hard if you don't know any better and religion seems always to have strong elements that oppose spiritual growth and free thinking.

Most of the time we just exchange one authoritarian system for another..

wayfarer said...

I was a 'mayavadi' follower in the 1970's, but joined Iskcon when I felt a need emerging in meditation to submit to the will of a higher power. After exploring it in so many ways in succeeding decades (mostly outside Iskcon), that need has pretty much evaporated and I'm more-or-less back to square one, if more relaxed and less desperate for 'enlightenment'. (Was it hormones?)

After some recent close encounters with death, what remains in me is a need to explore religious discussion of immortality, ultimately not bodily immortality which makes up maybe half the old texts and traditions, but the other ineffable kind.

But here's perhaps my deepest doubt, which I want to put before you all here - it is that I don't think it matters if you lead a moral life. I have, mind you. I have (perhaps even obsessively) taken the moral implications of every action of mine into consideration throughout my life - I have gone far out of my way to avoid harming others. This has gained me little in this world as far as I can see, and I have come to doubt it will gain me anything in the next. I expect, if there is an afterlife, to be amongst the souls of the greatest criminals in history, as well as the greatest saints. Because it is all a matter of perspective, ultimately insignificant. Confessing this in a public forum is probably the most immoral thing I have ever done.

What say you?

Jagat said...

Dear Wayfarer,

The reward for moral action is a peaceful conscience. Without a clear conscience, how can you expect to find peace or spiritual blessedness?

We look for material rewards--whatever they be--for our spiritual endeavors and we become disheartened when they don't come.

The Divine Couple is in your heart, radiating love and understanding. They tell us that the sufferings and shortcomings of this world really are a mist that will disappear with the rising of the Sun of knowledge and love.

That is all we should seek, that is all we need, and whatever else we need, if anything, will be added.

I doubt that the way you sought self-realization when you were young is identical to the way you feel about it today. How could it? But I think that there is a samskara, a deep impression in our psyches, that cannot be made to disappear even by the long practice of carelessness or sloth, not even by immorality. Your desire for self-realization has not disappeared, only changed form. Perhaps it is resting, recharging its batteries. But surely you care about your life and its meaning. You want it to have a meaning, don't you? Or is it, just as Shankara says,

punar api jananam
punar api maranam
punar api janani-
jathare shayanam.
iha samsare
khalu nistare
kripayapare
pahi murare.

Is that all there is? Again and again being born, again and again dying. Just filling in the space between birth and death so that we can go through it again, entering another mother's womb, still not getting the lesson. Oh Murari! You of unlimited mercy! Please take me across this ocean of repeated cycles of birth and death and save me.

Jai Sri Radhe Shyam!

wayfarer said...

A noble response.
Thank you, Jagat.

satyam param dhimahi

jijaji said...

namaskaram

Anonymous said...

Much water has passed under the bridge since 2008 when you kindly wrote this blog posting on the subject of "Mindfulness" Jagadananda Das.

"The only way that the mind becomes full is when in truth it first becomes empty."

Dearest reader, let go of all thought constructs, bring the mind to one undivided point (of no mind), "mental silence" is mindfulness, mental silence is the only way you are going to reach the undivided state that will carry your lucid consciousness across the threshold of life-and-death in the vehicle of the light body to become as one with the primordial being (the one before all others)."

Anonymous said...


gurucharanaambuja nirbhara bhakatah
samsaaraadachiraadbhava muktah
sendriyamaanasa niyamaadevam
drakshyasi nija hridayastham devam