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True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 8: Psychological Non-Attachment

Physical solitude is to be followed up with psychological non-attachment, which is really the commencement of true yoga. In fact, when we are psychologically detached in an effective manner, physical seclusion may not be necessary. This is a slightly advanced stage where the physical environment does not very much influence the condition of the mind because the mind has studied the world more deeply now and is able to look at it with a proper vision and in a correct perspective. Earlier, the vision was distorted, and there was a series of wrong impressions which the world created in the mind, due to which there was a chance of getting attached to various things, to objects of the world. Inasmuch as the mind is the principle factor determining our life in every way, whatever its condition is, that is our condition also. Mind is man, man is mind.

We are asked to live in physical seclusion to enable the mind to train itself properly, because in a confused physical atmosphere or a chaotic environment, it would be difficult for the mind to adjust itself to the required disciplinary procedures as demanded in the practice of yoga. It is necessary that we should, as far as possible, live in conditions which are not too obstructive, hampering, or opposing—or even tempting. Balavān indriya grāmo vidvāḿsam api karṣati (Bhagavata 9.19.17): Not even the wisest man can say that he has controlled the senses, because the senses have their own tactics, and like a whirlwind they can act when the conditions are favourable. While they appear to be good friends, they can act as the worst enemies under given conditions.

We are misconstruing the very relationship we have with the senses by imagining that they are our friends, and that they give us correct reports about things outside us. They give us wrong reports, mislead us, and tell us lies, which we take for the whole truth and get immersed in a mess of error after error, piled one over the other.

While we are in seclusion, we also have to get guidance from a spiritual master. It is impossible to get tired of repeating this necessity for a Guru in the practice of yoga. Except, perhaps, in the last stage of consummation, we are always in need of a guide because we are treading a very precipitous path, and we are entering into regions of which we have absolutely no foreknowledge.

Every stage of life in our ascent is a strange land whose conditions may look frightening and quite unsuited to our temperament and to what we have been accustomed earlier. When experiences come to us, they may come as surprises. In fact, every important or meaningful experience in life is a surprise to us. While there are no surprises in the world where everything is natural and normal, to us all these look as surprises because we have not been accustomed to them. We are used to living in a cocoon of our own personal imagination and prejudiced ideas, and when truth reveals itself gradually, every degree of this revelation of truth comes as a wonder, a miracle, a surprise, etc. We have to be guarded in these conditions. Otherwise, we would not know who is standing before us, and what is happening to us.

Sometimes, when we are seated in a railway train, the train will be going backward. We do not know what is happening. We intend that the train go forward. It is going backward for some purpose, though that is a part of its forward movement. Likewise, there can be a retracement of our steps or even an apparent fall, which may look very startling to a sensitive seeker. All these have to be borne with fortitude, understanding, and with guidance from the preceptor that has to come to us from time to time. Either we have to be with our parents or with our Guru. It is no use standing alone on our legs; otherwise, life will be a danger.

We have physical sequestration, such as in holy atmospheres like Badrinath, Kedarnath, or in a temple or a monastery, an ashram, etc. In such atmospheres of solitude, we have to ponder over the aim of life, the purpose for which we have taken to such a life and, if necessary, write down in a private diary the various steps that we may have to take and the different troubles that may befall us. It is unwise to think that in seclusion we are always safe. Though seclusion is a necessity and it is supposed to be a protection from our involvement in unwanted environments, these environments can project themselves even in solitude because undesirable environments are not always physical or external. They are only certain situations that are created externally by a susceptibility of our internal character, and as long as this susceptibility is there, the danger can be anywhere—even in the holy of holies of a temple. As medical men tell us, disease is a susceptibility to certain intrusions of external force. These forces are always there; sometimes we are impervious to them, and at other times we are susceptible. When we are susceptible, we get into the clutches of these undesirable forces.

There is no use merely living in physical solitude while there are unfulfilled desires. Bereavements, frustrations, demotions in office, etc., cannot be regarded as preconditions for the practice of yoga, and it would be a great blunder to think so. There cannot be a greater positivity of approach than the spiritual life and, therefore, any such negative condition cannot be a qualification for the practice of yoga. The inability to get the requisite type of enjoyment and comfort may drive a person to spiritual life, but these negative conditions are frustrations and would not be a qualification; rather, it would be a disqualification.

Taking to a path that is spiritual is a positive yearning of the soul for a higher attainment because it is satisfied fully with all the lower types of experience, having understood them thoroughly, threadbare, and not because it could not take advantage of the comforts and facilities that the lower experiences would give us. We must be capable of taking advantage of all the lower facilities of life, and yet renounce them voluntarily. It should not be that circumstances are unfavourable for a comfortable life. Otherwise, there would be a sense of defeatism in the heart, an inferiority complex creeping into us, and a sorrow which may be deep-rooted even without our knowing that it is there.

We may be looking small in the eyes of people on account of a deficiency in our personality, which may drive us to a path that is Godly or spiritual; but that would have a reaction because of the sense of inadequacy felt in our own self. A smallness or an inferiority that made us feel sorry and unhappy may react upon us by creating conditions favourable for the enjoyment of the very things which we could not get earlier. Anything that we want, we must get. This is a law of nature. And if we deeply want a thing, it must come to us. But wanting a thing and not getting it would not be a spiritual condition because that condition would seek fulfilment one day or the other, and it is these conditions that come as obstacles in the path of yoga.

There are stories in the Puranas, the epics, etc., that even great sages had obstacles of a peculiar nature, coming not only from the external world here, but even from celestial realms. All these oppositions that one has to face in spiritual life are nothing but the reactions objectively set up by our susceptibility to pleasure or physical enjoyment, egoistic satisfaction, sensory contact, etc. So, while we are in physical solitude, we are not always free from danger. Sometimes, we may be in a greater danger there than in a public atmosphere. That is why in some of the scriptures dealing with the subject of renunciation, we are told that a person who leads an absolutely isolated life should not live in a village for more than three days or in a town for more than five days. All these precautions are given because there is a possibility of attachment or familiarity with the atmosphere. When we are familiar with conditions outside us, we try to find occasions for taking advantage of that familiarity and utilising it for our personal satisfactions—physical, sensory, egoistic, etc.

It is useless, especially for a youngster, a beginner or a novitiate, to live absolutely alone without proper guidance from a superior; otherwise, he will fall with a thud and break his legs. In the initial stages of living in physical solitude it is necessary to live in the company of a group of people. If not, we should have a Guru who would be a sort of protection around us. Rather, it would be a mutual protection provided among one another by co-disciples or co-seekers. And in this physical solitude, we have to cultivate the art of psychological non-attachment, because the purpose of physical solitude is to train the mind for the practice of higher yoga.

Psychological non-attachment is a difficult thing, because while social pressure and social law and regulations can prevent physical contacts with unwanted centres or objects, nobody can prevent our mind from thinking; and our thoughts are our personality. What constitutes our strength or our weakness is the way in which we think. The physical conditions are not our strengths, and also they are not our weaknesses. What is in our mind, that is what we really are; that is our strength, and that is also our weakness.

It is, therefore, very futile on the part of anyone to think that one can lead a life of internal attachment while there can be an outward detachment. Bhagavan Sri Krishna warns us against this in the Third Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. While all our physical organs may be detached from objects of sense, the internal senses may be in contact with objects, setting up a reactionary force with a more violent contact with objects than we would have entered into merely by physical contact.

Psychological contact is worse than physical contact because the mind shakes up the entire personality and churns the bloodstream of our body. Bhishma speaks to Yudhishthira in the Santiparva of the Mahabharata, wherein he says that the moment the mind thinks of a sensual object, the entire bloodstream is affected—a thing that we are unaware of. It is similar to the way milk curdles by a touch of acid; there is a breaking up of the indivisibility of the milk. The strength of the milk goes, and it is no longer milk at all. It becomes curd, and it cannot be converted back into milk. So also, an intense thought of a sensual object is like acid poured into the bloodstream of our body. It breaks up the indivisibility and the health of the blood, and the energy of the blood is isolated from the blood like butter coming out of milk due to curdling. The vitality of our system is isolated from the bloodstream, and this vitality that is so cut off from the blood is forcefully diverted or directed towards the object which the mind has been craving. We know what happens when vitality is diverted to an object. We become weak mentally and physically; and even as curd cannot be converted back into milk, so also the energy that is lost is lost forever.

It is no use, therefore, believing that our thinking of sense objects is harmless. The Upanishads say that poison is not poison; it is the thought of sense objects that is the poison. Why? Snake poison can destroy only one life, but the poison of sense contact or sense thought can destroy several lives. It can cause repeated births through the cycle of metempsychosis.

All these have to be brought into the mind in seclusion, and the causes of attachment should be discovered. A thorough diagnosis of the case has to be made. The causes of attachment are misconceptions that we have in regard to things of the world. We have a wrong notion about things, and therefore, we are attached to them. We do not understand things properly; therefore, we are made to cling to objects.

There are many things that can attract us—hundreds and thousands of things and conditions—but as far as spiritual practice is concerned, one has to be very cautious about three important prongs of  human desire, which are the subjects of study in psychology and psychoanalysis, and are also mentioned in the Upanishads as the eshanas. Vitteshana, putreshana and lokeshana are the terms used in the Upanishads.

Interestingly enough, these subjects are studied by the Western psychoanalysts Freud, Adler and Jung. These are our weaknesses. These are the weak spots in human nature, and the moment these weak spots are touched, the personality comes out like a hissing snake. We always take great care to keep these weak spots covered; we put on an artificial personality which is itself a kind of disease, on account of which we are never happy at any moment of our life.

We have what we call a sense of self-respect, which is inseparable from our individual being. We have a sense of importance. This is lokeshana, or love for good name and fame, and it materialises itself into love of power later on when it gets intensified. Even an idiot has a sense of self-respect. This is the precise character of the ego. It is an attachment to the body that we regard as self-respect. What is our importance? If we analyse ourselves carefully and remove the fibres of our being individually, we will find that there is nothing inside us which can be considered of real importance. Whatever is of importance in us has come from somewhere else. The great words of Sri Swami Vivekananda come to my mind. In a lecture he said, “If there is anything worthy in me, it belongs to Sri Ramakrishna. If there is anything wrong, that is mine.” Well, this is a tremendous attitude of humility and wisdom, which is unknown to us.

Really speaking, an individual personality has no importance of its own. The importance that it assumes, or that it appears to have, comes from the element of universality that is inherent in it. This is not known to anyone. It cannot be known because the ego repels a consciousness of the presence of even that element of the universal in itself. We resent the universal so intensely that we would not even like to think about it, because even to allow a thought of it is to reduce the importance of the ego, which is very painful to us. We are important, and sometimes it looks that our importance is not recognised or known to people. Then we try to publicise it by various means, and the ego knows the ways by which it can announce itself or advertise its importance.

To free oneself from this evil of false self-respect, which has really no substance in it, masters of yoga and teachers of spiritual life tell us that we should live under conditions of humility. We should live a very simple life so that the ego may not swell up unnecessarily. When sitting in an audience, we should occupy the last seat, not the front seat. We may even sit near the shoes. Even if we are geniuses, it makes no difference.

I was reminded of the goodness of the late Dr. K. S. Krishnan, formerly the director of the National Physical Laboratories in New Delhi. He was a very famous man, a great personality in the field of science in India, perhaps even in the international field. He came here once with some other friends, looking very simple, wearing a dhoti. Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj had asked people to place a chair for him in satsang. One of the brahmacharis was sweeping and putting a dhari, and he put a chair there saying, “This is for Dr. Krishnan.” Dr. Krishnan happened to come there, and nobody knew who he was. By chance, Dr. Krishnan came and sat on that chair. Immediately the brahmachari said, “Hey! This is for Dr. Krishnan. You should not sit here.”

“Oh, I see. Sorry!” Dr. Krishnan said. He got up and sat down on the floor.

Then Swami Sivanadaji Maharaj came, and said, “Hey, you are sitting on the floor! Sit on the chair.”

“No, it's all right,” he said.

“No! No!” Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj pulled him up and made him sit on the chair, and then all looked up. This is the same man! The brahmachari felt so ashamed. Anyone else would have given a retort or shown a sign of resentment, but Dr. Krishnan did not though he was an important personality, really speaking.

The greatness of a person does not depend upon outward publicity or even on recognition by others. One's greatness is a self-sufficient qualification which is self-existent and can shine by itself, like the sun in the sky. It is absence of real importance that makes us feel that we are small, and we get annoyed when we are not recognised. The more is our vidya, the more also is our vinaya. The greater is our knowledge and wisdom, the deeper is our sense of humility. The bigger we become inwardly, the smaller we look outside in the eyes of people, so that when we are the largest inside, we may look almost nothing to the public eye. This is very important to remember. The characteristics of a true spiritual life are the other side of ego-centricity of any kind. Lokeshana—love of name, fame and power, and self-affirmation of any kind—is contrary to true spiritual aspiration. The superiority complex is a bane on human nature. This has to be avoided.

There are other features which are our weaknesses, which we have to look into later on.