Spirituality is Self-Abnegation

— Swami Narasimhananda —

The feeling of ‘I’ is the problem. The more one feels one’s ‘I’ the more one is entangled in the complex web of agency and possession. The notions of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ are at the root of all suffering. They propel one to do all actions, good and bad, and consume one’s entire being with a devastating power. Both the notions are in reality the obverse and reverse of the same coin, the sense of ego. Attaching everything to one’s sense of identity or ego is an existential survivalist technique of an individual. The net of this attachment is increased more and more. All the sense organs under the direction of the mind operate in different ways to extend one’s identity everywhere.

A person feels great when an object, person, place, or event is linked to one’s identity. We see so many things in the market, on shop windows, but the moment a particular thing is bought, it becomes one’s own and one has a special relationship, a special connection with that thing. For example, if you want to buy a mobile phone, you go to the mobile store, mostly on the Internet, and go through various models and select one that suits your requirements and pocket. Till then, all the various models are just so many alternatives, so many choices before you. The moment you select a particular model and buy it, it becomes ‘your’ mobile phone. Now, you are attached to that mobile phone. If something happens to that mobile phone, if it is lost or damaged, you become disturbed. Here, the problem is not in the thing, the mobile phone itself, but in your attachment to it.

The greatest trap in the web of agency and possession is the adamant ego.

Sri Krishna identified the notions of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ as lust and anger. Acharya Shankara identified these notions as the notions of doer-ship or agency and enjoyer-ship. Sri Ramakrishna identified the notions of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ as lust and greed. All of the three were unanimous in declaring these two to be the culprits, the reasons for suffering. According to Acharya Shankara, the goal of Advaita Vedanta is to get rid of these two notions and thus get rid of suffering that is naturally present in this world. Every thought is produced because of a desire. Every desire is created by the sense of ‘I’ or by the sense of ‘mine’. Every time the mind experiences something through the senses, either in the waking or in the dream state, an impression is created on the mind, which attracts more such experiences. It is a chain reaction. The only way to attenuate these impressions is to remove the ideas of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ from our daily transactions. How can it be done? Can it be done at all? Yes, it can be done and many spiritual luminaries bear testimony to this by their own realisations.

The key is to understand that nothing in this universe is permanent, everything here is transient and our true nature is the ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-blissful Atman. All our work, all our experience are only layers of covering over our true nature. The impressions created on our mind by previous work and experience lead to new work and experience. In sum, our past actions determine our future. But, so do our present actions. So, the hope is that we can regulate our present actions in such a manner that our future actions and experience are conducive to our goal of getting rid of all kinds of suffering. However, as long as there is even a faint impression of any action or experience, one is not freed from suffering. Then the question is how to prevent any further impressions from being created on the mind. To understand this, we have to understand the root cause or main factor that leads to the creation of an impression on the mind. Every instance of the notions of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ create an impression on our mind. That is the reason why the countless faces we see in a fleeting glimpse while moving about on roads or in public transport do not create any lasting impression on our mind. These glimpses do not have an active support of the notions of ‘I’ and ‘mine’.

In other words, an action or experience itself cannot create suffering for us unless that action or experience is associated with the notion of ‘I’ or ‘mine’. If you do something and have the idea, ‘I am doing this’ or if you experience something with the notion, ‘I am experiencing this’, only then would you have an impression of that action or experience created on your mind. Hence, the secret of getting rid of suffering is getting rid of the ideas of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ or to get rid of the idea of one’s individual ego. Any idea of individuality as an entity distinct from the others has to be annihilated. For instance, if you watch a movie, you can enjoy it, as long as you do not expect that the movie should be good or should create a good experience, or do not have the idea, ‘I am watching this movie’. While any kind of expectation would create misery if that expectation is not fulfilled, even the mere thought that ‘I am watching this movie’ would create suffering. For example, if someone tells you something that is incorrect about that movie, you would immediately have the urge to correct that person, and your claim to such correction would be that you have watched that movie. Someone could also challenge the very fact that you have watched that movie. In all the scenarios, associating oneself with any action or experience is sure to cause suffering.

The greatest trap in the web of agency and possession is the adamant ego that refuses to accept that it has committed mistakes. When a person has a strong attachment and identification with an action or an experience, it becomes almost impossible for that person to accept the mistakes one commits. Since it is an action prompted by one’s attachment or identification with ‘I’ and ‘mine’, it becomes deeply hurting or injuring the very identity of oneself to accept a mistake no matter how blatant or obvious the mistake is. That is why accepting one’s mistakes is truly a humbling experience. In conclusion, the root of all suffering is the individual identification with the ego. As Sri Ramakrishna said, ‘When the “I” dies, all miseries vanish’. Swami Vivekananda also often asserted that the goal of spiritual life should be self-abnegation. The emphasis of Swamiji’s teachings on the raja, karma, bhakti, and jnana yogas is self-abnegation, self-effacement. It is only when the core problems of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, agency and possession, doer-ship and enjoyer-ship are solved that the spiritual goal of the realisation of one’s true nature or the complete cessation of suffering is attained. Sri Ramakrishna poignantly describes this journey of self-assertion to self-abnegation through the example of how right after her birth a cow moos resembling the Indian word for ‘I’ and turns into a sound of ‘you’ only when her hide is beaten on a drum after her death. Let us take this journey of hammering our puny egos so that our attainment of everlasting bliss happens in this very birth.

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