When I showed up to Rishikesh I had no idea where I was going to stay or what I would do, but this is what it is like travelling, especially in India. I had trust in divine guidance and knew of one place called Dayananda Ashram. I had known of this ashram because back in NJ I have been learning from Swami Tadatmananda in Somerset, NJ at the Arsha Bodha Center, down the street from the house I grew up in. Here he has taught Vedanta in the same manner as his guru Swami Dayananda has taught and I have been attending his classes for many years.
The first thing I did when I got dropped off in Rishikesh was take in all of the incredible sights and sounds, send a prayer to the healing spirits, and got an auto-rickshaw and was dropped off at the gate of the ashram. I had no idea what to expect since one is supposed to preregister for a room and I didn’t even know I would be coming. Upon entering the ashram there was a beautiful stillness and sense of peace, juxtaposed with the chaos of the towns. The first thing I did was go into the temple and offer my thankfulness and prayers for guidance and protection. They were very kind and offered me a place to stay despite the fact that the rooms were all booked up. They had programs, pujas, free meals, so much chai, and a beautiful view of the Ganga and the mountains. Soon I learned that Swami Dayananda was coming to the ashram a few days after I arrived so naturally I felt I was in the right place. After his arrival I learned that there would be 4 intensive week classes on Vedanta in which Swamiji would be teaching. With this I was definitely feeling blessed and in the right time and place. The gods/spirits/universe etc. had answered my humble prayers. And now I share some of the teachings and realizations that have been shared with me over the years.
Vedanta consists of 2 words, “Veda-anta” which refers to the end portion of each Veda, which are called Upanishads, or”upa-nishad”, literally “sitting near”. The Upanishads are many in number and contain stories of a guru and their disciples sitting together in which the guru is giving the highest knowledge of the universal reality and systematically unfolding this realization within the student, helping them work through doubts and confusions.
A common metaphor to form the basis of Vedantic teaching is “clay and pot”. When the clay is made into a pot, it takes a name and form, yet the inherent nature of the pot is still clay. The pot soon forgets this reality and lives as if it is bound to its own “potness” or limitations. The pot is real and its limitations serve a function, yet the realization that it is fully clay is the freedom from suffering for the pot. It now has the inherent choice to become free despite its limitations. The pot has trouble accepting its reality as clay which would break it through all of the duality and anxieties within itself. The pot goes around thinking it is a pot, “poor me, just a tiny little pot, so many problems, I am just a crack pot”. But the pot is fully already clay, it needs nothing but this knowledge and understanding to be free. There are many pots, but just one clay. Each form and name is made of the very sum and substance of the universe. This is what we are and it is the same truth for our individuality.
In this way, the truth of what we are, or Maha-Vakya (divine speech) can be exclaimed as Tat-Twam-Asi – That thou are! Expounding the universal truth that the cause of all reality (clay) is inherent as the effect (pot). In other words, the one Divine is all that exists, the only separation being names and ideas that we have acquired and learned to superimpose upon this reality. This then separates and divides our mind into constantly perceiving categories of likes and dislikes, pains and pleasures. We must recognize these separations as functionally and apparently real, yet tracing that the inherent cause of all (Brahman) is manifest throughout it. The apparent reality is changing, yet the inherent reality is always one.
Wedged between our self and our inner sense of God (in whatever form, or formless) we superimpose self-alienation, self-deprecation, feeling insignificant, and separation. In Sanskrit this is called ahamkara, lit. I-doer. The sense that I am the do-er, and this is mine. When we have this sense we continually try to manipulate the world to be more conforming to our ideas about how it should be. In all of this striving to find happiness we actually suffer more, because the reality of the world can never be pinned into mental concepts and ideas we carry; which are transient, fleeting, and always changing. In Sanskrit these are called Nama and rupa, name and form, word and meaning. These 2 Sanskrit terms represent all of the duality and separation we create within our daily experience. I like this, I don’t like that, I want this, I don’t want that, this makes me happy, this makes me suffer, this is good this is bad, he is beautiful, she is ugly, I am fat, he is smarter than me…etc. These external individual names and forms are not the problem. The mindset we carry is the problem, and true knowledge can break this problem of conditioning. This is the teaching of Vedanta. Once the pot knows it is clay it can never again deny its true nature even if it takes lifetimes to come up to “owning” this reality. Once the child gets a better toy it automatically discards the old one that it was previously very attached to.
The goal of Vedanta is to become aware of and destroy this fundamental problem of self-non-acceptance and alienation. It states that right now we already are what we want. We already possess all that we need to be happy, and no possession will ever make us happy. The constant wanting and neediness are based on the idea that once I have “this” I will really be happy…the great Self-Lie. The knowledge of our true self, which leads to finding inner wholeness can fulfill us in a holistic way that looking externally for fulfillment cannot provide.
As all great masters have said, all external things are bound to cause suffering due to the fact that they are always changing; but change it will, and change it must! This is the nature of Nature. Our minds are continually demanding static, comfortable experience in order to be happy and in this way the reality that we experience will cause suffering and disappoint due to the degree of attachment we have towards things staying as we want them. We go around with expectations that can never be fulfilled and are disappointed when they are not. To be free we must accept the truth that everything is fully allowed to be free and change however it wants, and we have no right to possess or own it, mentally or physically. In order to feel free we must change our orientation of “I” from the mind, to that of our internal Soul which is already full, complete, and whole.
All this world is indeed Brahman (the source of the universe) exclaims the Upanishads. Or as Swami Dayananda put it; “There is neither one God, nor many Gods, there is only God”. Each teacher develops an art in Vedanta to systematically lead you to this realization, beyond an intellectual understanding into the direct realization. This truth cannot be “experienced” because it is always already being experienced and is indeed the cause for all experience. It can be realized through proper understanding. It’s like looking at your own eyes. In order to see our own eyes we need a clear mirror, not a distorted mirror to perceive the reality of our eyes (our I’s) correctly. This mirror is Vedanta; a deep and profound Return to Nature through inquiry and meditation upon the most important question,” Who am I really beyond all of this?”
If we seek to change our nature instead of Nature then we can get at the root of the problem, the false conditioning of our own minds. When we surrender to the flow and feel our unity with the universe it is like flowing with the direction of the stream. If we live in the half conscious paradigm that “I am the doer and it has to be this way” then we are swimming against the current and may flap our arms tirelessly but stay in the same place.
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is an option”. This quote sums up one of the greatest truths…we may not be able to change the experience that the universe is providing us, as a teaching tool, but we can carve our minds to be able to change our reaction and biased beliefs about it; this is defined as spiritual growth. We suffer when our mind is superimposing desires onto our experience. We become free to the degree that we can accept what is in front of us and make calm, informed, and careful responses, instead of unconscious reactions that cause a huge mess that we will have to clean up some day. This is a spiritual art and the teachings of Vedanta are one such method and system for practicing this art.
What can we do? Half consciously we try to change the experience, which we can’t. But we have the free will to change our mindset and perspective. This is very difficult but we must try. And with these truths we must do our best and be our best, this is best. We always have a deep voice of inner guidance within us. Walk towards the light.
Much love and Blessings!
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