The Path to Freedom: Mastering the Art of Total Perception
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 1: The Aspiration for Spiritual Life

My proposal is not to take up any particular scriptural text, inasmuch as people attending these classes may be here only a few days in this season, and having a fixed topic with relevance to the previous discourses would not help them much. Therefore, I thought it more proper to give an outline of the spiritual practices of sadhana, which is of greater consequence to mature minds with some knowledge of spiritual life.

Hence, this series which I am commencing will lay special emphasis on the practical aspects of the mind’s adjustments with spiritual values, because most of us are mature enough to realise the importance of practice. While it is quite true that everyone knows that practice is important, very few would be clear as to what this practice is. It is easy to have a general idea of something, but to have a more specific knowledge is difficult.

We have a general idea of God, of the world, of life, of Self-realisation or God-realisation, but when it comes to actual experience in day-to-day life, we realise that the mind stands apart from Reality. We have always a tremendous problem in life, a singular problem that faces every human being – the incapacity of the mind to adjust itself with the facts. Sadhana is nothing but this adjustment of the mind with Truth.

Many of us may have some knowledge of truth in its academic or philosophical sense, but this knowledge is only mental knowledge. All scientific or academic understanding is mental, psychological and rational. It is an understanding of something, a kind of information that we have gathered. But we know very well how far information is removed from the reality. We may have a lot of information about a bag of rice in a shop, but it is not going to appease our hunger. There is no practical connection between our knowledge and the object to which that knowledge is supposed to be related. The highest object of spiritual sadhana is God, as we all know very well, and only if this object is properly related to our mind and our consciousness will it become sadhana.

Sadhana is not merely the concentration of mind on God at the very outset. This is a very big ideal, but it manifests itself in smaller ideals in our day-to-day life. Before we understand God, we find ourselves in the necessity to understand ourselves. We appear to have a very appreciable knowledge of God and His creation but very poor knowledge of our own self, due to which it is that we suffer in life. Pleasures and sufferings are connected with ourselves, and not with God.

We seem to be connected with facts, and to the extent we succeed in these adjustments, we are successful in life. People are failures in life in spite of their professions, their salaries, and their institutional career, and the failure may be in any field of life. It may be in education, in business, in a monastery; it makes no difference. One may be a failure merely because the ideal has set itself apart from the real. We have always been adoring and worshipping the ideal, and it has ever remained as an object of adoration. It has never entered our hearts or come near our hearth and home. God has ever managed to keep Himself apart from us so that we may offer prayers to Him, and we must call Him every time as He is not always with us.

As I said, it is not merely the difficulty that we feel with God, Who is a distant Being; apparently, the difficulty is with small things in life, also. To understand this medley of human maladjustment and the incapacity of the mind to understand the objects that stand as its counterparts, it will be profitable to know something about the evolution of the mind itself. All things are related to the mind. We ourselves are an embodiment of the mind. The mind seems to be the thinking principle in us, and it does not get separated from our being. We identify with it, though in psychology we speak of the mind as an object of study.

It is really ourselves; we cannot tear the mind away from our body or our being. It sticks to us – and it is us – so when we study our mind, it may look as if we are studying ourselves. Therefore, it is futile to think that psychology is a kind of objective science. It is not a science in the ordinary sense of the term – unless, of course, we think that any systematised knowledge is science. It is an attempt at analysis of the processes through which one passes in life – not only independently as a psychological being, but also in relation to objects.

The crux of the whole matter is: In any field of life, to what extent can the mind take the object with it as an inseparable part of itself? We mostly think that the objects are away from us. The object of the mind is not connected with the mind physically, materially or in reality. Our friend is not a part of our mind. Our house is not a part of our being. Whatever be the intimate relation between ourselves and the objects that we hold dear, they are apart from us, so if the time comes, we can forsake them, and they can forsake us. Our relationships are artificial in this sense. Such is the precarious situation in which we live in the world.

The world is supposed to be untrustworthy in a philosophical and spiritual sense. Many saints and seers have proclaimed this. We cannot pin our faith on the world, because of the small difficulty that we do not seem to be a real part of it. We really do not belong to our family, and the family does not belong to us, though for all practical purposes we may feel that we are integrally related. A time comes, perhaps in everyone’s life, when one is torn away from family, society, business, from the position one holds, and so on. A time comes when one stands alone in a wilderness, as it were, with no relationships and the objects all cut away – a circumstance into which one can land at any moment.

The precariousness of life arises on account of this fundamental difficulty of the relation of the mind to its object; and whatever be the sadhana that we practice, whether it is kirtana or bhajana, japa or meditation, all these hinge upon this relation of the mind and its objects. When we chant kirtana, for example, it is not merely a word that we utter or a sound that we make; it has an object. It is not merely a mental operation that goes on when we are meditating; it has an object. We are not merely moving about here and there; our activities have an object. We will find that every blessed thing that we do in this world, psychologically or physically, has a counterpart as an object.

Now, this object has mostly remained like a kind of instrument – like a spade, a pickaxe or a knife – which we make use of and then cast away. Even people are used as instruments that can be cast away when they are not needed. It is unfortunate that these truths only become more and more clear as people grow older and realise the facts of life. They begin to know, slowly, after they have retired from their professions; they begin to realise in the maturity of their minds that the world is not as fond of them as they imagined, and the world is not going to help them as much as they thought it would. These are the types of realisations which would come to the minds of every person one day or the other. You realise when it is too late.

The sadhaka or the seeker is one who girds up his loins and prepares himself for the eventualities which he may have to face in life, even before they come. It is not enough to find swords and guns when the enemy is attacking. It must be our wisdom to keep everything ready even when at peace. No one tries to dig a well for water when the house is on fire. To try to do sadhana late in life, when everything is settled economically and physically, would be a folly because sadhana is not as easy as people imagine. It is not just commencing something at once. Even a business we cannot commence so easily. There are many factors involved in anything we do; and in spiritual practice particularly, the factors involved are many – not one, two or three, but many – the most important factor being our own self.

While in all the other activities of life we try to keep ourselves away as a reserve force and utilise others to effect our purpose, with sadhana we find that we have to use our own resources, not imitations or borrowed stuff, because we cannot utilise other things. The more we grow in the consciousness of spirituality, the more also do we realise the intimacy that subsists between ourselves and our objects – the intimacy in an inner sense, not an external or social sense. Our approaches to things ordinarily are such that they do not bear any relation to facts. The history of psychological development of the human mind reveals that our mind evolves stage by stage. We do not suddenly become celestials or gods. The Puranas tell us that we have passed through 84 lakhs of yonis or births. We have been every blessed thing in this world before becoming human beings. This is what our scriptures say. Scientists all say that we have passed through various stages of evolution from matter to life, from life to mind, and from mind to intellect. From the pure inorganic level we came to the biological, and from the biological we came to the psychological and the rational.

Now we are supposed to be in the rational stage of life, and we think that this is the pinnacle of existence. Rationality is adored as a god. Well, every level is a god from its own standpoint, but it becomes inadequate when compared with something higher. I do not think that an animal would be conscious of its limitations; it thinks it is all right. It is only man that thinks an animal is inferior because of a comparison of values. In its own field, everything looks all right and complete in itself; and so it is that we regard our life as complete, and rationality as full-blown experience. If rationality, intellect, learning, and human wisdom were to be all and nothing more were to be there, then we ought to have been perfect beings.

We know how much we are perfect; each person knows in his own heart. Everyone knows what a confusion life is, and some of us know the causes also; yet, we cannot set things right due to factors beyond our control, which are the strings of human aspiration. There are certain things which are not visible to our eyes, but yet seem to be controlling everything. Our external actions, psychological aspirations, even social relationships, all seem to be guided and manipulated by a set of strings within us which do not become objects of our physical eyes. The intellectuality and the rationality which the human being has reached now at the present stage of the 20th Century [1970] gives a hint as to the existence of these immanent strings behind our rationality. Reason is a body of these sets of strings within, and as the soul operates behind a body, the strings operate behind every external phenomenon.

The mind evolves very mysteriously and this evolution cannot be known, just as we cannot see our growth day by day. We know that we have been growing from childhood – every day we have been growing a little, in every respect, but we cannot see this growth. Not only can we not see our growth, but we also cannot see the growth of another person if we are seeing that person every day.

Very mysterious, minute and subtle is this process of evolution. The mental process of evolution is, of course, subtler still. We have been growing psychologically, and not merely physically, organically and biologically. The earliest state of the mind is supposed to be that in which it gets lodged with matter, where there is no such thing as psychology at all. It is only inorganic matter. Mind getting buried in matter is the crudest state of mind. Fire is in the matchstick, but we cannot see the fire. It is totally absorbed in the matchstick, which must be rubbed in order that it may be ignited. The condition of mind wherein it is inseparable from matter is the crudest form of matter. It evolves gradually, where it tries to extricate itself from the clutches of matter, and it begins to assert its independence, slowly, though not fully. It does not succeed in its assumption of independence, but it refuses to be totally controlled by the laws of matter.

In the field of botany or biology, the laws of physics do not hold good totally. They hold good as far as the body goes, but even plant life, for example, manifests a tendency which cannot be explained physically. No one has been able to demonstrate what life is. It has been taken for granted, as if it has been known very well; but we cannot define it, and we cannot demonstrate its variegated characters. The life principle that is manifest in plants and trees is the first assertion of independence of mind over matter, while in inorganic material it was apparently not there at all; for all practical purposes, it was dead.

Independence cannot be called independence until it is absolute. Relative, tentative, conditional independence is nothing. We go on complaining, grumbling, murmuring and so on when given only tentative and conditional freedom. We want to assert freedom in its completeness. Freedom, as the very word connotes, is the capacity to act independently, without any external factor. But if matter is to come and assert itself in our life – if things that really do not belong to us come every day and interfere in our life – we cannot be called independent.

So the life of the biological or botanical plant is not all; there is evolution still. An animal, for example, can think more independently than a plant, and it can move about. Moving around is a special characteristic that we see in the animal kingdom, and they can also instinctively react better than plants and trees. They can see what is in front of them and can understand, to some extent, the circumstances in which they are living. We know very well how advanced is the animal mind compared to the mere protoplasmic or biological element in the plant kingdom. We are more concerned here with understanding what higher aspiration is and what the higher values in life are, which question arises only in the human kingdom.

We have already transcended the stages of matter and mind, experienced these processes, and now we stand not merely different from these levels, but higher. An adult has in himself or herself everything that a child has, and a graduate has everything in him that an elementary school student has, educationally; this is what is meant by transcendence. Growth implies transcendence. It is not just jumping from one thing to another. In jumping there is no transcendence; it is only escape, running away, but in growth and evolution the lower is implied in the higher, and when the higher is reached, the lower is subsumed.

So in the human level we seem to be at an advantage over all other aspects of creation – animal, plant and inorganic levels. We have a freedom of our own. Although man is small compared to the gigantic machinery of the cosmos, he has a power in him on account of the psychological transcendence that he has achieved. Powerful animals in the forest can be controlled by one man; though the animals may be many and man may be single, he may be in a position to control all the lions, for example, because of his psychological transcendence. He knows the workings of the mind better than the animal does.

Now this is the question we have to place before our minds: After having reached this stage, can we pat ourselves on the back? Life reveals that we are not so safe and secure as we might imagine ourselves to be. With all our knowledge, with all our transcendence of the animal level, our life seems to be insecure. We have fears of various kinds, and are not happy. Everyone knows it. Though scientifically it is true that we are superior beings, we sometimes have fears which haunt us more piteously. Even animals are not in so much fear as man is – especially today – because our umpteen fears are created by circumstances which are unnatural, while the fears of the animal are natural.

One reason for the increase in the fear in humanity is a peculiar characteristic in us which is absent in the animal, on account of which they are a little more blessed than man: egoism. Though the principle of personal consciousness may be in animals in an incipient, rudimentary form, man has an egoism of a different character altogether. It is not merely self-consciousness, it is self-assertiveness – assertiveness to the opposition to others and in the teeth of others’ well-being.

This is something very peculiar and looks sarcastic when we study its nature. When we study human psychology, we come to grips with a certain peculiar difficulty on account of this strange human element called ego. Just as the mind is a part of our being, the ego is also a part of us. We cannot separate the mind from our self, and so also we cannot separate the ego from our self. We are the mind, we are the intellect, we are the ego. We sum up all these elements in a single term ‘I’ which includes mind, intellect, ego and all other psychological functions in the evolution of the human mind.

While at the human level it has shed some of the instinctive characters belonging to the lower levels, it has placed itself in new difficulties due to its entanglements in the various forms which human egoism takes. Especially in spiritual practice, you will realise that it is egoism that acts as the greatest of oppositions, more than even the senses and the other psychological functions.

I began by saying that the mind evolves slowly and gradually from the extrication of the clutches of matter, and in one of its stages it plants itself in what is called egoism. In the lower levels of matter and life, the evolutionary process was, to some extent, spontaneous. We cannot say that there was any self-effort on the part of the plant to evolve to the human level. Up to the human level, evolution seems to be spontaneous and free from the necessity of personal self-effort. But when we come to the human level, there is felt a need for what we call effort, free will and the exercise of choice. We have the power and the freedom to do this or that, to choose one alternative or the other. In this freedom with which we seem to be endowed, we are better off than animals – true. But this freedom also, at the same time, is a great handicap. We are bound by our freedom, in one sense. When freedom is given to a person who does not know how to exercise freedom properly, it becomes a cause of bondage. The freedom that we have achieved is mostly a freedom to do what we like, and not necessarily the freedom to do only the right thing. The vision of the proper thing to do is lacking, so when power is vested in the person who lacks perfect vision, this power is misused.

Vision and action have to go together. A gun is good in its own way, and a sword has its own purpose, but we cannot hand them over to a baby. Power corrupts, as they say, when vision is lacking. We have been endowed with a freedom in the sense of a license, and not in the moral and spiritual sense; so what happens is that we try to exercise our freedom for a purpose that is contrary to the law of nature. While the freedom in a miniature form given to animals and plants is used only for the natural purpose of self-subsistence and self-multiplication, the human being alone sometimes uses this freedom for destructive purposes. We never see the vegetable or animal kingdom using its freedom for destructive purposes. But man can contrive, and all his erroneous approaches to life are due to his incapacity to rightly adjust his mind with the environment. There is no use in merely being placed in a suitable environment, economically speaking. We also should have the understanding to put this environment to proper use with the simultaneous knowledge of our true relation to it. First we have to realise where we are.

If you go to a foreign land, what are the laws of that country? You cannot apply the laws of your country there, for obvious reasons. Likewise, the laws of the animal level cannot be applied wholly to the human level, and so instinct alone will not succeed; but we persist in living only on instinct. The freedom with which man has been endowed is expected to be utilised to evolve further into higher understanding. Human life is one of the rungs in the ladder of evolution which is not yet complete. Though we have reached the human level, we have to move further.

It is like travelling to Badrinath; you have come from Haridwar to Rishikesh, but you have to go still further. We have to go further and further into higher realms. The Upanishads speak of various degrees of joy into which the human mind enters, until it reaches the final confirmation, the Bliss Absolute. Human joy is nothing; it is a jot, a distorted reflection of true bliss. And so there is evolution yet to be, which ought to be, through which our mind has to traverse. But if human freedom is mixed up with human ego, then evolution can be retarded at the human level. There is no retardation at lower levels, but at human levels it can be retarded; there can be stunted growth, and even reversal under special circumstances. There can be a demotion, as we have in offices. While human beings have special privileges as compared to animals, we have also special dangers which animals do not have. While we have a larger freedom, we have also greater fears and greater chances of going wrong, and man can suffer more than an animal does merely because of the mixture of freedom with egoism.

Unfortunately, what happens is that when we rise up from the level of the brute consciousness of pure animality into the human level, we do not wholly become human; we come with an inheritance of the animal instinct also, to some extent, and many times we mix up the human values with the animal instincts. Our visions get blurred. The lower mind is the instinctive mind: the id, the libido and so on, as psychologists tell us. These are all the human’s inheritance from animals.

We may say we have just one leg in the human level; that is why we have human aspirations together with animal instincts and passions. We can sting like a scorpion and bite like a snake. The human being has special features such as compassion, understanding, and cooperation, but the lower characteristics also show their heads, and we often make a mess of these two, perhaps every day.

We confuse the human ideal and aspiration with the animal way of perception. One of the animal ways of thinking is: “The world is absolutely unconnected with me, and has nothing to do with me. The world is so much removed from me that what happens to the world has no bearing upon my life.” This is our inheritance from the animal level. “If the whole world goes to the dogs, it has nothing to do with me. Let all die, as long as I am comfortable; it makes no difference to me so long as I am happy.” This is an inheritance from the animal level, again, but it is not a truth.

It is not true that we can be safe when the whole world goes to the dogs, yet sometimes these feelings come and we manifest them in our day-to-day life, in society, even in family, in business, in shops, on the streets, etc. We manifest these thoughts covertly. What does it matter to me if another man is hung, if I have absolutely nothing to do with him? This is only a specific way in which we think sometimes, though not always. And at least fifty percent of our life goes away in such thinking, which is going to bind us. It is this sort of thinking that is called selfishness. Selfishness does not succeed because selfishness is untrue, though it asserts itself always. It is not true that the world is independent of us and that we are independent of it. It is here that the consciousness of higher life begins.

Up to this time we are in the animal field only. We think that we are completely safe within the four walls of our room. As long as we are content with thinking along these lines, we are in the subliminal level of animals and have not yet become true human beings, because we have not yet had the vision of truth. Spiritual life is supposed to commence with viveka, or understanding. The first understanding that blossoms forth is the understanding of the fact that there is some sort of connection between ourselves and the world. It is only the illiterate and untutored rustic that can immaturely go with the notion that the world has nothing to do with him, and he has only to exploit it as much as possible.

You know the saying, satyameva jayate: Truth succeeds, and nothing else – a great dictum. But what is truth?

The truth is that there is a sort of relationship immanently felt between yourself and the world, though outwardly there seems to be no such relationship. Apparently there is no connection between one person and another person. You can get up and walk away in any direction you like. But this is not wholly true. You may walk miles away from me, but yet you cannot have complete separation from me – not only from me, but from anything else in the world. Physical isolation is one thing, and truth is another.

You cannot be away from the truth of a circumstance merely by being physically away from it. You cannot escape facts by merely physically running away. The facts will pursue you. The nature of truth is such that it can follow you like a shadow, and this truth expounded in the scriptures and by saints is that mysterious something that seems to be hidden behind the outer separations of life.

While in ordinary business you dupe people under the notion that you have nothing to do with them, the world will in turn dupe you some day because of the relation that is there already. It was your animal instinct that made you believe that you can do this, but the truth asserts itself and recoils upon you and stings you with an equal vengeance, which is sometimes called the law of karma and the law of action and reaction, merely because of a truth immanent in the so-called outer isolatedness and separation of life. Therefore, you will realise that in trying to dupe the world, you have unwittingly duped yourself.

The spiritual aspiration, the spiritual consciousness, rises like a small tendril, a small plant, and flashes forth like a spark when the mind of man begins to hazily feel the presence of some sort of thing masquerading behind the separations of life, and he becomes restless because of this hazy vision – like Hamlet in Denmark: He began to see something, though he could not explain what it was. Something is dead wrong, and something is hovering around us, from which we do not seem to be in a position to escape. This restlessness is the commencement of the spiritual consciousness in human life.

This is an incipient stage of spirituality, we may say: the recognition of there being some sort of defect in our ordinary attitude to life, though we have not been able to see what this defect is. Sometimes we do not feel all right; we feel indisposed. We cannot definitely tell what has happened or what is wrong. This feeling of not being all right arises in the life of all persons, and we seem to be fed up with things, though we do not know the cause. When this sense of having enough with things arises, we may be sure that the spiritual is awakening in us. It is just awakening; the child is not yet born, but yet there is a possibility of it being born.

This goes also by the name of vairagya, scriptures say: a distaste that we feel for the ordinary satisfactions of life. It is a lack of taste for things, and has nothing to do with the physical distance of objects from things. It is a sense of enough with all things – a surfeit with all happiness that we had in this world, and we do not want it anymore. It is not that we cannot get things, but rather that we do not want them. There is a sharp distinction between vairagya and frustration – when we cannot get a thing, it is frustration, but when we can have it but do not want it, this is vairagya.

A very subtle distinction is to be drawn between spiritual discontent and psychological frustration. It is a very, very important distinction in spiritual life, so important that many people mistake one thing for the other. Many people are in serious difficulties, and they mistakenly think vairagya is dawning. Not so! Vairagya is something different. Vairagya is the absence of longing. Have we a longing for something? Would we like to have it? Will we take it if it is given? That is the question we have to answer. If we would not like to take it even if it is offered, well, that is something very worthwhile; but it is difficult. Nothing can be more difficult than to realise this distinction between the sense of spiritual discontent, divine discontent, and the submerged desires of the human mind.

Many a time, our desires seem to lie buried, with none on the surface, but it does not mean that there are no desires. They are just not seen: the thieves are not visible, but they are there. Desires can lie dormant like a coiled serpent; so small do the cobras become when they are coiled, but when anything touches them, immediately they expand themselves into furious activity. This is exactly what desires do. Blessed are those souls who can realise this difference between repressing a desire merely because of the inability to acquire their counterparts, and sublimating them on account of having had enough of them.

This having had enough of things also can be of two types: One is because a person has had and seen everything; or he may not be interested in anything on account of having understood everything. He might not have seen them physically, but he knows them. A doctor need not pass through every disease physically; he knows what the disease is, though he himself has not fallen sick. Likewise is a person with vision and insight. He sees through things, not merely seeing things. He can penetrate them like an X-ray, and see the structure behind the objects.

So vairagyas, as the scriptures tell us, are of two kinds: the vairagya of the person who has been through the ruts of life, passed through many a suffering, passed through bramacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha, etc., has seen all people and knows what all people are, and so he will not go to them again. That is one sort of maturity which the mind reaches and attains a kind of vairagya.

But there are some who are born with a longing for the eternal, though they might have not physically come in contact with tempting objects. This positive aspiration for that which is permanent takes possession of them in an intensified manner so that nothing ephemeral can blow them away. This is the most stable kind of vairagya; but even the earlier one should get stabilised by the aspiration planted in the mind of the seekers by deep thought and the understanding of the nature of things.

So we have now come to this initial stage of the spiritual consciousness. The first stage in the development of spiritual aspiration is an inherent sense of dissatisfaction with everything in this world, and longing for things which are not visible to the eyes. This is viveka and vairagya, understanding and dispassion combined, and here is planted the sapling of true spiritual life.