Insights into the teachings of yoga’s ancient wisdom texts and their relevance to life in the modern world.
My spiritual teacher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, had many extraordinary talents. One of them was his ability to come up with simple English phrases to express complex philosophical ideas that are packed into compressed Sanskrit aphorisms.
‘Spirit soul’ was one such phrase that he frequently used to differentiate our essential spiritual nature from the material nature of the bodies we inhabit. He would often say, “We are spirit souls, not this material body.”
A question about this phrase came up the other day in connection with a series of classes I’ve been giving. The question was, “Why did Prabhupāda say ‘spirit’ soul and not just ‘soul’?
I think the answer to this question shows just how ingenious this catchy little phrase really is.
The corresponding Sanskrit expression is ‘aham brahmāsmi,’ which can be partially translated as ‘I am Brahman.’
‘Brahman’ may be translated as ‘the ground of being’ or ‘the Supreme’ or ‘Transcendence’ or ‘the substratum of existence’ or ‘the Absolute Truth,’ among other possibilities. It can be used as a qualitative description of spiritual existence or as a quantitative description of ultimate reality. Either way, Brahman is understood to be a timeless, changeless, and unified state of being.
In the Vedānta-sūtra, ‘Brahman’ is defined as ‘that from which everything proceeds,’ which is to say that Brahman is the original cause of all subsequent causes and effects. Brahman, however, has no cause. In other words, Brahman is the cause of Brahman. Hence, Brahman is categorically different from everything else since Brahman stands alone as being completely independent.
As if this weren’t already complicated enough, Brahman is also understood to be an undifferentiated unity encompassing the totality of reality, which would seem to make it impossible for there to be an ‘everything else.’ And to top it off, the Upanishads describe Brahman as having two aspects: with form and without form; a paradoxically dualistic feature of something that’s inherently non-dualistic.
Therefore, to say ‘I am Brahman,’… well, that’s really sayin’ something.
So how can one succinctly translate the phrase ‘aham brahmāsmi’ into English?
By translating it as “I am spirit soul.”
Brahman is said to be the spiritual cause of the material world. The material world is described in the Bhagavad-gītā (7.4) as ‘separated energy.’ The process by which Brahman produces the material world is described in the Vedānta-sūtra as a ‘transformation of energies.’ Brahman is thus understood to have inconceivable energies that are simultaneously different from and not different from Brahman.
It’s another paradox that I’ll catch up to in a minute; for now, just keep going.
The energies of Brahman undergo a transformation from spiritual to material. In other words, matter is a transformation of energy, which we already kind of knew: the inverse corollary of Einstein’s famous theorem E=mc2 is M=ec-2.
The energies are transformed but Brahman, the source of the energies, remains unchanged in the same way that a potter is unchanged by the process of transforming a lump of clay into a clay pot.
The Bhagavad-gītā (7.5) also describes how living beings consist of a categorically different kind of energy from matter: spiritual energy. In other words, you and I are qualitatively Brahman insofar as we’re made of the same spiritual energy that constitutes the substance of Brahman.
Therefore, to say “I am Brahman” is a qualitative statement that differentiates us, as spiritual beings, from the material bodies we inhabit.
But if we want to translate ‘Brahman,’ is it enough to say “I am spirit?”
Well, it’s a true statement but it’s incomplete.
For starters, to say “I am spirit” carries an implication of oneness that resonates with the idea ofBrahman as an undifferentiated unity but might conflict with our experience of individuality. This is a significant problem: if individuality is an illusion then there’s no possibility of anyone realizing that they’reBrahman because the individual who thinks ‘I am Brahman’ doesn’t really exist. In other words, we can’t get there from here because we’re not really here.
There’s also the problem of cultural context: in the west, the word ‘spirit’ is usually taken to be synonymous with a the essence of a person’s character or to indicate a disembodied being, such as a ghost.
So can we say, “I am soul” instead of “I am spirit?”
This would also be a true statement but it would also be incomplete because, in this same western context, the word ‘soul’ is often seen as synonymous with the word ‘spirit.’ Additionally, we tend to think of ourselves as having a soul rather than being a soul. A ‘soul’ is thus understood to be something we possess rather than as what we are.
But if we combine the word ‘soul’ with ‘spirit,’ then the word ‘soul’ serves a different purpose: it implies individuality. I’m a soul, you’re a soul, everyone’s a soul. And the word ‘spirit’ provides the defining characteristic of a soul as being spiritual.
Therefore, although the words are practically synonymous, we can still use them together as a coherent set, with ‘spirit’ indicating both the quality of the soul and the unifying principle of all sentient beings and ‘soul’ indicating the quanta of our individuality as well as the character of our spiritual identity.
Thus the phrase ‘spirit soul’ comprehensively describes our status as spiritual individuals. As ‘spirit’ we all share a qualitative oneness with Brahman, just as flames on the wicks of candles all share the same radiant qualities, and as a ‘soul’ we retain a quantitative difference from the totality of Brahman that confirms our spiritual individuality, which, in turn, supports the possibility of spiritual relationships.
And bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion, is the yoga of spiritual relationships.
Which brings us back to the first paradox: Brahman has inconceivable energies that are simultaneously different from and yet not different from Brahman.
Thinking this through to its logical conclusion, if Brahman is the energetic source and we, as ‘spirit souls’ are in the category of spiritual energy, then we are simultaneously, if somewhat inconceivably, both one with and different from Brahman. Therefore the ultimate realization of our spiritual relationship withBrahman consists of both union and separation.
What does that look like?
Well, if it looks like anything then that brings us back to the second paradox: that Brahman comes in two flavors: with form and without form.
And I’ll save the resolution of that paradox for another blog post. I hope you enjoyed this one.
Photo credit: devmaryna via freepik.com.
It’s said that we live in an unfortunate season of time; a time when simple living and elevated thinking give way to complicated entanglements and diminished reasoning, when purity gives way to pollution, mercy gives way to malevolence, and truthfulness gives way to falsehood.
It’s a time when people are needlessly quarrelsome, consistently misguided, unlucky, and, above all, always disturbed.
On Wednesday, the diminished reasoning, persistent pollution, malevolence, and falsehood that’s been simmering for the last four years came to a rolling boil here in my adopted hometown of Washington DC.
The misguided hullabaloo that unfolded at our nation’s Capital was a clamorous demonstration of the power of fear, the incremental escalation of hostility, the disavowal of personal responsibility, and, most importantly, the invalidation of facts.
Neutralizing the illuminative influence of inconvenient facts is a two-step process. Step one: cut people off from sources of valid information. Step two: supply a set of ‘alternative’ facts so that those who are dissatisfied with objective reality can construct an alternative, subjective reality
And the key to creating a convincing subjective reality is to strip truth of its gravitational force, which is easily achieved by downgrading the criteria for truth from deference to direct perception, logic, and authoritative testimony to mere belief.
Thus, the fortunes of would-be authoritarians rely on the possibility that, as Hannah Arendt put it,
“…gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”
Truthfulness, the second ethical principle of yoga, is thus the first casualty of political expedience in the iron age of quarrel and hypocrisy.
The Sanskrit word for ‘truthfulness,’ satya, indicates a direct relationship between the truth and eternality, sat, which is to say that a fact is always a fact whether one believes it or not. The correlation between truth and eternality is made explicit in this verse from the Bhagavad-gita:
“That which has no endurance does not truly exist whereas that which exists eternally never undergoes change. Seers of the truth have reached this conclusion by studying the nature of both.” – Bg 2.16
‘Seers of the truth’ translates the Sanskrit phrase tattva-darśibhiḥ. Tattva is a word that indicates ‘truth’ as a feature of reality. In contemplating the significance of this verse, we can consider two hierarchical levels reality: relative and absolute.
Relatively speaking, this too shall pass: the current convulsions of American politics will eventually subside. And with their abatement will come the opportunity to look for the root cause of the social diseases that gave rise to them.
Seekers of the truth would be wise to look beneath the surface of the social diseases to the spiritual amnesia that gives rise to the affliction of misidentification; the illusory perception of the eternal spirit soul as the temporary material body.
Our attachment to a temporary body, draped over the eternal soul like a cloak, induces an embrace of a bodily conception of life: we become convinced that ‘we’ are this nationality, race, gender, tribe, etc. and that ‘they’ are that nationality, race, gender, tribe, etc.
Ignorant of the fact that this distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ does not truly exist, needless quarrel ensues as ‘we’ try to align the universe with ‘our’ desires rather than allow ‘them’ to align the universe with ‘their’ desires.
And who’ll deny it’s what the fighting’s all about?
From a spiritual perspective, our blind acceptance of a temporal identity within a relative world as the sum total of reality is to accept a monstrous falsehood as an unquestioned fact.
The most important message that yoga wisdom has to offer us is that the relative truths of our temporary material existence play out within the context of the absolute truth of our eternal spiritual existence.
This is good news because knowledge of absolute reality, received through authoritative testimonials of self-realized sages, can revoke fear’s power, cool the consciousness, and support a level of existential courage that will make us immune to manipulation by authoritarian con artists.
The proposition that relative truths are nested within the context of an absolute truth is actually quite logical, akin to studying American history within the context of world history in order to get a complete understanding of how America came to be what it is.
And the practices of yoga constitute a spiritual technology that enables us to transform theoretical knowledge into realized knowledge, an undeniable experience of absolute reality by direct perception.
Taking advantage of the opportunity to pursue an awareness of our eternal spiritual nature while we’re passing through this unfortunate season of time isn’t an act of self-absorbed withdrawal from world events. On the contrary, banding together in pursuit of transcendental knowledge is our best hope for a revolution in consciousness that will simplify living, elevate thinking, restore purity, advance the cause of mercy, and establish the ultimate fruition of truthfulness.
May we look forward to a time when we’re all causelessly kind to one another, guided by wisdom, recipients of good fortune, and, above all, always peaceful.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what ‘contentment’ really means.
‘Contentment’ is one of the niyamas, the set of five personal observances that Patanjali lists in the second chapter of his Yoga-sutras. It’s also a state of being that can be very hard to attain. How do we find real contentment?
One way is to try to understand what the obstacles to contentment are. Two of those obstacles are 1) pining for an irretrievable past and 2) worrying about what the future will bring.
I’m particularly susceptible to dwelling on the past and thinking about all of the choices I could have made instead of the ones that I made. There’s value to reflection but, in this case, it’s just an indulgence of my mind’s desire to fantasize about what my life might be like in an alternate universe.
Whatever we could have chosen in the past, the choices we made have brought us to where we are now. Perhaps our current situation appears to be fortunate, perhaps it appears to be unfortunate. Good fortune today has a way of becoming misfortune tomorrow and today’s misfortune has a way of becoming good fortune down the road. We can’t know all of the things that, sooner or later, will impact the trajectory of our lives.
We can tell ourselves that there’s no point in dwelling on what might have been but logic alone doesn’t cut it. Practicing contentment means working on accepting whatever we have while letting go of what’s been lost or was never meant to be.
The flip side of lamenting for what’s gone is worrying about what’s to come. Will we get what we want? Again, as with our choices in the past, we find ourselves trying to navigate the unknown. We like to think, ‘If only I knew then what I know now’ but the saying will apply as much in the future as it does in the present.
The one thing we do know is that the pursuit of anything temporary is an exercise in futility: we may never get it and if we do we’ll have to worry about keeping it. Practicing contentment means working on accepting whatever we have and letting go of the propensity to strive for more than we need.
This doesn’t mean that we should forget the past or stop planning for the future. Those who can’t remember the past are indeed condemned to repeat it and that the most reliable way to predict the future is to participate in its creation. Contentment is not passivity; it’s action that’s informed by knowledge of how the past has created the present and performed based on spiritual values like simplicity, generosity, and truthfulness. Contentment is a willingness to be fully present in the present without hanging on to the past or rigidly grasping for a particular future.
Contentment is genuine acceptance of and gratitude for whatever we have. It’s being fully invested in the process of moving forward without being obsessed with possessing a desired result. It’s the process of cultivating inner peace even while experiencing life’s difficulties, living modestly even when we have the opportunity to live lavishly, and sitting with our true thoughts and feelings without bypassing them in favor of a display of artificial tranquility.
The payoff from practicing contentment is that we arrive at a place of inner freedom and happiness that doesn’t depend on any external circumstances.
Given the uncertainty of external circumstances, that’s a good place to be.
What I remember most was how quickly I was able to accept what was happening.
An eastward swing down Porter Street, a long residential mediary between two busy thoroughfares, offers an easy and enjoyable tree-lined descent to cyclists with a modicum of common sense.
But am I a sensible cyclist? Nope.
I was coasting down a curve after leaving a friend’s house near the top of the hill when I realized that I’d forgotten to roll up my right pant leg to avoid its ruination by the grease from the chain.
On the assumption that I could easily correct this oversight without interrupting my ride, I bent my right knee to bring my foot up toward the seat and reached back to the cuff with my right hand.
Have you ever done something while riding a bicycle that seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be… not so smart?
An intelligent rider would have just stopped for a moment to safely attend to such sartorial concerns.
But am I an intelligent rider? Nope.
The little glance back toward my right foot was the last straw: my left hand followed my eyes and, with my front wheel suddenly perpendicular to my trajectory, the laws of physics demanded that I be launched out of my seat and up over the handlebars.
As time slowed down to let me fully appreciate the ephemeral sensation of weightlessness, along with its implications for what would come next, an inner voice spoke to me. The voice said, “Surrender.”
And that’s what I did.
I surrendered to the inevitability of gravity as I catapulted through the air en route to a rendezvous with the pavement below. I let go, both literally and figuratively, relaxing my body as I dove into my fall rather than resisting it, rolling to land across the backs of my shoulders and pop up to my feet just in time to see the eyes of the driver behind me pop out of his head.
I assured the concerned driver that I was okay, knowing that the bruises I had just sustained wouldn’t fully blossom until later.
And so it goes: one moment we’re gliding through life, the next moment life gives us a beating. We never know when the laws of material nature, such as the law of gravity, will turn effortless enjoyment into unwelcome injury. They say the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. We should add uncertainty to our list of certain things.
Much to our collective chagrin and dismay, uncertainty is the new normal.
Psychologists tell us that uncertainty is unhealthy, that, for the sake of our mental health, we need to have some sense of certainty about the future, some confidence in our ability to control the outcomes of our actions. I think I can, I think I can, I know I can…
Yet, time after time, the will of providence pulls the rug out from under our feet, repeatedly proving to us that we’re not really in control, that we can’t really be certain about how things will turn out, that any presumption of control or certainty we may harbor is a product of illusion.
When we cling to our illusions despite their being revealed for what they are, we become unmoored. Set adrift in a sea of uncertainty, we double-down on a false sense of identity, we become angry, anxious, and bewildered, and our true nature disappears from our view like a distant shore sinking beneath the horizon.
As I crouched by the side of the road to see if my bicycle had sustained as much damage as I had (it hadn’t), I took a moment to reflect on how I had clearly been defeated by a the laws of material nature, the will of providence, and my own poor judgment.
And on how my immediate surrender in the face of my defeat probably saved me from more serious injury.
In yoga, ‘surrender’ means ‘to offer one’s self to’ (prapadyante) or ‘to take shelter of’ (śaraṇaṁ). It’s an act of humility rather than an expression of humiliation, an acknowledgement of reality rather than an admission of defeat. ‘Surrender’ in yoga is the recognition that the basic need for shelter extends beyond the merely physical or psychological but to the spiritual as well.
Spiritual surrender offers us a practical solution to the problem of material uncertainty. Krishna spells it out for us in the Bhagavad-gītā:
“My divine power of illusion, composed of the qualities of material nature, is nearly impossible to overcome. But those who offer themselves to me can easily cross beyond this bewildering power.” – Bg 7.14
We don’t usually notice how the force of gravity holds us to the earth or how the laws of physics dictate the nature of our experience. Similarly, we’re usually unaware of how the laws of material nature generate reactions to our actions that bind us to a cycle of alternating happiness and distress.
But the wisdom texts of yoga tell us that there’s an alternative to being thrown hither and thither by the illusory power of material nature: surrender to the source of that power.
If we try to control the material energy in an attempt to enjoy material happiness and avoid material distress, one thing is certain: we will be defeated. After all, death is certain.
If, on the other hand, we surrender to the source of this divine and bewildering material energy, we’ll experience an everlasting sensation of weightlessness as we’re lifted up from the ocean of uncertainty into a position of spiritual empowerment.
This doesn’t mean that nothing bad will happen to us; it means that we’ll be able to roll with whatever happens to us with the knowledge that happiness and distress are temporary conditions of material existence and that material existence itself is a temporary condition for one who has surrendered to the Supreme Controller of everything.
If I had tried to regain control of my bike once I’d lost it, I probably would have done myself more harm than good. My choice was to let go of the bicycle or have it taken out from under me. Either way, one thing was certain: I was going down.
Somehow or other, I chose to let go and the experience made me certain of something else: surrender is an enjoyable glide that can save us from the inherent uncertainty of life in the material world.
Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels
I’ve been reflecting back on my life as a teenager recently; on how it seems as if it were a previous life rather than an early chapter of this one; on how reckless I was with my privileges and resources; on how lucky I was to get away with so many ill-advised escapades without losing my life or my freedom; on how others I knew weren’t so lucky.
The physical body of my gloriously misspent youth is long gone but, somehow or other, I’m still here. Traces of my youthful self remain in my metaphysical body, the body composed of mental, emotional, and intellectual impressions. But if we accept the proposition that every seven years or so each cell in our bodies is replaced by a new one, I’ve changed bodies six and a half times since surviving my teens.
In that sense, I really can say that it was a previous life. In any case, it’s experiential proof that I’m not my body.
If you’re old enough to be reading this, you’re old enough to recall having a physical body that’s since been replaced by a new one, maybe even several times over by now.
In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna uses our experience of continuously changing bodies within a single lifetime as an example to support the proposition that we’re all eternal spiritual beings passing through temporary material bodies across multiple lifetimes:
“Just as an embodied person experiences the transformations of their body, from childhood to youth to old age, that same person will pass into another body (at death). Those who are wise do not find this bewildering.” – Bg 2.13
Beyond the theoretical idea of being eternal, what would happen if you actually experienced yourself as being eternal? Would that change how you look at your life?
If you were able to see others as eternal spiritual beings in temporary material bodies, would that change the way you looked at them?
Would that change the way you look at death?
The wise may not find death bewildering but most of us aren’t that wise. Most people are completely bewildered by death. Dying is supposed to be a natural part of living and yet it seems so… wrong.
That’s because it is wrong, In fact, it’s not even possible, at least from the standpoint of our true nature, which is to be eternal and eternally joyful.
Joy naturally arises from the cultivation of spiritual consciousness. And spiritual consciousness starts with the awakening of our spiritual vision.
Spiritual vision is the ability to see our lives and the world in a spiritual context. It starts with knowledge, a basic understanding of what the world looks like from a transcendental perspective. It culminates in realization, the direct experience of engaging with the world from a transcendental position.
By awakening our spiritual vision we regain our natural ability to see how the material world really works, to see how we’re all affected by the illusory power of material nature and, ultimately, to see the original, spiritual nature of reality.
As if escaping from my gloriously misspent youth relatively unscathed wasn’t enough for me to be grateful for, I’ve had the good fortune of being able to spend the better part of my life studying yoga wisdom texts with amazing teachers. They’ve helped me to develop a practice that has allowed me to get a glimpse of the material world from a spiritual perspective.
Developing just a little bit of that ability has made a huge difference in my life.
I think it might make the same kind of difference in your life.
That’s why I created ‘Awakening Your Spiritual Vision,’ a free 45-minute audio guide to seeing the world from a transcendental perspective.
There’s no sales pitch, no countdown timer, no special offer. It’s just plain free.
CLICK HERE to listen to it and download it if you like.
I’d like to know what your thoughts are on this: how would the experience of being eternal change your life? How would the kind of spiritual vision I’m describing change the way you look at things?
And I’d like to know if my free audio class helps you to see yourself and the world in a new and different way so please write to me at email@example.com and share your thoughts with me. I’ll always be happy to hear from you.
How are you doing?
Usually, at least where I come from, ‘how are you doing?’ – or, to be more accurate, ‘howya doin’?’ – is a greeting, not a question.
But this time I’m really asking. Things have been rough for the last few weeks and it will probably get worse before it gets better.
So please tell me how you’re doing and what you’re doing to keep you and yours safe and sane.
For myself, I’ve been wondering how, aside from staying home, I can be of service to those for whom the coronavirus pandemic has become an all too reasonable source of dread.
Jess, a good friend and fellow yoga teacher who’s been studying the Bhagavad-gita with me for a long time, recently asked me about this very thing. She has a sister who’s a front line health care provider and the rest of her family is understandably terrified about what might happen to her.
Jess has taken the essence of the Gita’s teachings to heart. And by integrating those teachings into her daily practice, Jess is riding out the storm of this pandemic from a safe inner space.
Out of love and compassion, she quite naturally would like to share her spiritual insights with members of her family in the hope that they, too, can experience the same kind spiritual equanimity she’s experiencing.
But this can actually be quite a challenge. The obstacles to sharing our spiritual perspectives with the people we care about the most can not only be frustrating; they can give rise to doubts about the impact our spiritual lives have on our most important relationships. As Jess put it to me:
“Śaraṇaṁ is the lovely experience of surrender to Krishna. It allows one to experience connection to all beings because it lets us fully see and feel Krishna all around us.
It’s also been my experience that śaraṇaṁ brings freedom from fear. And right now, I’m looking at the world and seeing Krishna in all of his energies and not experiencing much fear or anxiety.
However, many of my loved ones who are not on this spiritual path are fearful and anxious. I can’t just tell my anxious family “hey, chill out and surrender to Krishna!”
For the first time ever I feel like my connection to Krishna is not facilitating a connection to others and their suffering.
So my question is: how do we support and connect with others and their suffering when we see the world through a very different lens? How can we actually talk about reducing fear when our personal experience of śaraṇaṁ will look kinda crazy to those people?”
I thought this was a great and timely question.
Krishna’s conclusive instruction in the Bhagavad-gita (18.66) is to let go of all secondary principles of spiritual practice and simply look to him, Krishna, for shelter. He specifically uses the Sanskrit word śaraṇaṁ, which means ‘surrender to’ or ‘take shelter of.’ And he adds the phrase ‘do not fear’ to emphatically indicate that confidence in his protection is the key to genuine fearlessness.
It’s natural to want to help our friends and family become fearless. But Jess is right: we won’t comfort anyone who’s distraught about the coronavirus by saying, ‘don’t worry: you’re not your body and Krishna’s in control so just see how the material energy is working under Krishna’s direction and look to him for shelter and everything will be okay.’
Such attempted reassurances will only cause confusion and anxiety rather than clarity and relief for those who have no information, to say nothing of realization, about how the Gita advises us to respond to such catastrophic events. This is why Krishna advises us not to disturb the minds of those who aren’t seeking spiritual solutions to material problems (Bg 3.25-30).
But Krishna also tells us that kindness and compassion for all beings are the natural symptoms of someone who is blessed with a saintly character (Bg 16.1-3). So, in times of crisis, how do we constructively and compassionately offer spiritual insights to friends and family who don’t share the same frame of reference for them that we have?
In the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita (Bg 4.11), Krishna says, “However one approaches me, I reciprocate with them in precisely that way.” Therefore, we can follow Krishna’s example and lovingly reciprocate with our friends and family members according to the way that they approach us.
In the course of our loving reciprocation with them, they may notice how events that are throwing the whole world for a loop aren’t knocking us off balance. And if they notice, then they might ask, ‘how can you stay so calm in a situation like this?’ That’s our cue to share the gift of spiritual wisdom with them.
If what we do isn’t perceived as being helpful then it’s not helpful. So this is a case where taking the initiative can backfire. The trick is to inspire people by our personal example of consistent kindness and equanimity and wait for them to ask us how we manage to keep our cool when all around us are loosing theirs.
So, in addition to how you’re taking care of yourself, how are you staying spiritually connected to others? Please let me know how you’re maintaining your spiritual relationships at a time when we’re all obliged to keep a safe distance from one another.