Human life is difficult; we have to face troubling situations every day that make us feel disappointed, hurt, or angry. Expectations and hidden desires are the main causes of such distressed and despondent moments. We feel cheated or believe that we have been taken for a ride by others, and underestimate ourselves to be vulnerable to severe conditions and powerful people. Also, there are many occasions when we genuinely think that the people around us are hell-bent to create problems for us so that we become their subordinates—physically and mentally.
The solutions offered by modern psychology and New Age gurus, though effective on the superficial level, do not give enduring remedies to these existential trepidations. These human problems are not centred on the material need, but on the spiritual lacuna that one feels in one’s inner being. These are fundamentally spiritual problems which manifest in secular garb. That is why, any amount of satisfying worldly desires won’t fill the relentless psychic lacuna we suffer from throughout our life. This lacuna or vacuum can never be satisfied with empirical means— material or psychic—but only by obtaining spiritual answers to some of the primary questions of our existence like ‘Who are we?’, ‘What is the meaning of life?’, and ‘What is the goal of life?’.
Yoga and Vedanta are not just abstract philosophies; they also deal with some significant psychological issues that have profound practical implications even in modern situations. Their solutions to the obstinate human problems are based on the realisation of the Universal Reality by the sages of yore. And, they are still relevant in the modern context also. The philosophical doctrines instructed in Yoga and Vedanta also have their genesis in the awareness of Supreme Consciousness that the Upanishads have recorded in no uncertain terms.
It is our endeavour here to dwell on some of the philosophical and psychological insights of our sacred texts like Upanishads, Bhagavadgita, and Patanjala Yogasutra, which have the ability not only to offer pertinent and enduring solutions to modern day psychological problems, but also make human life meaningful and fulfilling. These ancient teachings can play a very important role in the psychological well-being of individuals who are caught in the lattice of unending cravings of lust and greed in these modern times.
Who Are We?
It is the mind that is the abode of all our thoughts—good, bad; and feelings of misery and happiness. We don’t think of ourselves as different from our minds and hence, we feel happy, miserable, and the like. Vedanta teaches that the core of human personality is pure Consciousness, which does not change. It does not feel happy, neither it feels any suffering. It is eternal and remains the same in all circumstances. It is due to ignorance that the Atman, the pure Consciousness, identifies with the body-mind complex and apparently experiences happiness, misery, and so on. The Atman is the same in all beings as it is the substratum of life itself.
This fundamental doctrine has deep psychological significance. Vedanta instructs us to identify ourselves more and more with the Atman, shedding the wrong concept that we are the body and the mind. We should understand through deep study and contemplation that the Atman is our real nature which remains unchanged and eternal. Different experiences like happiness and misery are but mental states of which Atman is the witness. This true knowledge about ourselves is the first step in achieving greater psychological stability, when we are troubled by external circumstances.
The next step is to learn that the Atman is just the witness of thoughts and emotions arising in the form of thought waves in our minds. Atman sheds light of consciousness on the working of the mind; but in reality, never gets attached to it. All kinds of thoughts and emotions are due to the fluctuations taking place in the mind. Atman just plays the role of a lamp and illumines them with consciousness. Hence, ideas like ‘I am happy’ or ‘I am in misery’ are factually incorrect and occur only due to misunderstanding, which Vedanta calls avidyā.
The third step is to dissociate ourselves from the thoughts of the mind and develop a witnesshood towards everything happening around us. The state of being a detached witness, when practised, will shield us from the external world and make us more and more introverted. When the mind is indrawn, the happenings around, whether good or bad, will have little or no impact on us.
Dealing with the Mind
The hurt feeling, disappointment, depression, and other negative emotions are not due to external factors. They are but our adverse reactions to stimuli coming from outside. Also, it is our choice whether to react to them or not. The mild and reasonable reactions do not disturb our minds and such people live a more or less happy life. It is the people who are emotionally vulnerable, who react intensely to the slightest provocation from the external world, that become miserable quite often. Hence, we have to develop a balanced mind with well-regulated emotions, which can confront the onslaught of misfortunes that we encounter in our lives quite often.
Yogasutra says that there are two kinds of thoughts: that which gives us suffering and that which does not. However, it advises a spiritual aspirant to reduce both kinds of thoughts and endeavour for a concentrated mind. It lists the five states of mind: restless, dull, distracted, concentrated, and fully controlled. Concentration is not possible in restless, dull, and distracted states; hence, one should dwell more and more in the concentrated state which is possible through repeated practice of meditation. This state ultimately enables us to reduce and control our thoughts.
One of the major takeaways from above is that one cannot achieve tranquillity if one leads a life with a restless, dull, or distracted mind. It is the restless mind which is more vulnerable to the impact of external conditions and reacts fiercely. The dull mind cannot concentrate and tends to be in a state of stupor, which further may lead to depression. The distracted mind generally is one-pointed but gets diverted easily by external factors. The lifestyle, which accommodates these states, is hazardous to mental health. Hence, we should adopt a sāttvic way of living, in which we work, think, and entertain ourselves moderately and focus on our spiritual development.
Countering Evil Thoughts
Yoga psychology teaches an effective mode of countering unwanted thoughts that arise in our minds. Of course, such thoughts are our own creations. The past actions have left impressions on the mind and these impressions raise thoughts in turn. The good actions of the past leave good impressions, which become the cause of good in the future. So is the case of evil thoughts. Hence, it is imperative on our part to control and cleanse our minds through strict ethical disciplines and time-tested observances.
Yogasutra prescribes five ethical disciplines called Yama, and five purificatory observances called Niyama. Yamas (forms of restraint) include ahimsā (non-injury), satya (truthfulness), asteya (abstention from stealing), brahmacarya (continence), and aparigraha (abstinence from acquisitiveness). Niyama consists of sauca (cleanliness of body and mind), santoṣa (contentment), tapas (austerity), svādhyāya (study of scriptures), and Īśvara-praṇidhāna (devotion to God). These disciplines, when observed diligently, will make the mind free from evil thoughts and also enable us to have greater control over our thoughts.
Yogasutra also suggests an immediate remedy to counter evil thoughts. It says: ‘To be free from thoughts that distract one from yoga, thoughts of an opposite kind must be cultivated’ (Yogasutra, 2.33). It means, if we are troubled by the thoughts of injuring others, we should raise contrary thoughts of non-injury in our mind. Likewise, if we are tormented by the thoughts of stealing or corruption, we should raise the thought of non-stealing in our mind. These opposite thoughts, when they become predominant in the mind, will be able to counteract the evil thoughts effectively. Normally, we try to suppress such thoughts and pretend to be of good conduct, which is harmful to mental well-being. Instead, Yoga teaches the effective method of subduing evil thoughts by raising opposite thoughts.
Meaningful Relationships with Other
Vedanta and Yoga also teach how to develop meaningful relationships with others. This is very essential for keeping the mind steady and at peace. Relationships in this modern world are fragile because they are based on materialistic considerations and selfish motives. The relationship advocated by Indian tradition is profound as it is spiritual. The understanding that all beings have the same spiritual essence binds one human with another and makes one feel the other’s happiness and sorrow as one’s own. Gita (6.32) puts this idea as follows:
आत्मौपम्येन सर्वत्र समं पश्यति योऽर्जुन ।
सुखं वा यदि वा दु:खं स योगी परमो मत:॥
O Arjuna, that yogi is considered the best who judges what is happiness and sorrow in all beings by the same standard as he would apply to himself.
Yogasutra prescribes four cardinal virtues for developing enduring and meaningful relationships with others, which ensure mental tranquillity. The corresponding aphorism is as follows:
मैत्रीकरुणामुदितोपेक्षणां सुखदुःखपुण्यापुण्यविषयाणां भावनातश्चित्तप्रसादनम् ।
Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference towards the wicked. (Yogasutra, 1.33)
The above aphorism addresses four defects in the human mind: harbouring enmity towards those happier than oneself, meanness towards those who are miserable, jealousy with meritorious people, and aversion towards so-called evil-minded people. All these attitudes create turbulence in one’s mind and become the cause for suffering. These are also the very traits that strain our relationship with others making life hellish. Hence, though it is like swimming against the current, we should develop friendliness with those who are in a better position than us. At the same time, showing compassion and serving those who are needy keeps our minds in a noble state. Also, we should develop goodwill towards those who are engaging in good works, and be indifferent towards those who are evil-minded and corrupt. These are the cardinal rules of conduct through which one can achieve peace and tranquillity in life.
Managing the Dualities of Life
Another important factor in surviving life challenges is to recognise the fact that one is bound to face dualities in life and maintain equanimity in all situations. Sri Krishna says in the Gita (2.38):
सुखदु:खे समे कृत्वा लाभालाभौ जयाजयौ ।
ततो युद्धाय युज्यस्व नैवं पापमवाप्स्यसि ॥
Treating happiness and sorrow, gain and loss, and conquest and defeat with equanimity, then engage in battle. Thus you will not incur sin.
The whole life is a battle. As Swami Vivekananda says, our life is a struggle with Nature, which is pulling us down. In this battle, we face dualities like happiness and misery, that we must endure. However, Sri Krishna says that mere endurance is not enough; we have to learn to see all situations with samatva (same-sightedness). It means that we should play the role of a witness in all conditions of life without getting attached. Sri Krishna calls such attitude asakta-buddhiḥ sarvatra (remaining unattached in all circumstances). Such an attitude rises from the spiritual insight taught in the Chandogya Upanishad (3.14.1) as: ‘Sarvaṁ khalvidaṁ brahma tajjalāniti śānta upāsīta; all this is Brahman, everything comes from Brahman, everything goes back to Brahman, and everything is sustained by Brahman. One should, therefore, quietly meditate on Brahman.’ A proper understanding of this great spiritual truth prepares one to see all eventualities that occur in one’s life with same-sightedness.
Spiritualising Our Life
A person with worldly ambitions and cravings for sensual enjoyment can never have mental equipoise. Sri Krishna warns in the Gita that two major enemies of a human being lie in his or her own mind. They are desire and anger. According to him, it is the unsatisfied desire, that takes the form of anger and destroys peace of mind. Sri Krishna also teaches how uncontrolled desires destroy one’s life. It is by constantly thinking over the objects of desire that one develops an attachment towards them. Such an attachment breeds desire and desire, when it remains unfulfilled, begets anger. Anger leads to infatuation, which further leads to the loss of the power of discernment, as we tend to forget the ethical and spiritual instructions we have learnt during our education. This will, unfortunately, make our life meaningless and insipid. This state, according to Sri Krishna, is nothing short of the destruction of one’s life.
Vedanta teaches a lasting solution to this entrenched problem of modern materialistic society. It is through spiritualising one’s life that one can have a correct knowledge of the real meaning and purpose of human life. This life, as Swami Vivekananda says, is not for pleasure, but for spiritual learning and realisation. It involves discovering one’s innate nature to be spiritual and derive sustenance to live from that divine source. In simpler terms, as Sri Ramakrishna repeatedly says, this life is meant for the realisation of God and our only duty is to develop intense love for God. The Master prescribes four basic, yet simple, disciplines that take us towards the goal. They are prayer, Japa, meditation, and singing the Name and glories of the Lord.
Prayer is a way of directly talking to God, unburdening ourselves from the heavy load of our anxieties and worries, and sincerely seeking the Lord’s help in overcoming them. In the advanced state, it is just being still in the divine presence of God and enjoying His bliss. Japa is repeating the holy name of God regularly and developing such a state of mind in which one constantly thinks of nothing but God. Japa, when mature, will lead to meditation, in which one’s thoughts constantly flow uninterruptedly towards God and one sees the illumined living form of his or her chosen deity smilingly sitting in one’s heart.
The simplest and the most efficacious way of remembering God can be done through chanting hymns and singing the glories of God. In that endeavour, the divine life and deeds of incarnations like Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, Jesus Christ, and Sri Ramakrishna become the object of constant contemplation for a devotee and through that, one will succeed in feeling the presence of God all the time.
Two Cardinal Disciplines
Yogasutra teaches two disciplines that are essential for pursuing any kind of spiritual discipline. One is abhyāsa (continuous relentless practice) and another is vairāgya (dispassion towards sense pleasures and worldly enjoyments). Vyasa, the commentator of Yogasutra, gives insights into the working of the mind. He says that the mind flows in two directions. The mind with discernment flows towards kaivalya or liberation, which is the ultimate goal of human life. In contrast to that, the mind without discernment flows towards the state of saṁsāra, the continuous recurrence of births and deaths. Vairāgya prevents the mind from flowing towards evil, and abhyāsa or the constant practice of discernment between the absolute spiritual Reality (Purusha) and phenomenal Nature (Prakriti) leads one to the higher realms of awareness and wisdom.
Even in our daily life, these two disciplines are of utmost importance to us. Any endeavour we undertake needs much effort and dispassion towards everything that obstructs us on the path to our goal. Inculcating these values in our life makes us focused and determined, and also revitalises us to intensify our effort in actualising our cherished goals.
The teachings of the ancient scriptures—which have the wherewithal to solve all of our modern-day problems—have resurrected in the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda, the spiritual trio of the modern age. These three luminaries are the practical and effective illustrations of all the great spiritual values that Indian tradition has cherished for thousands of years. They are also the living examples of how to survive life challenges in this disturbing period and strive for spiritual advancement.