Part 1: Living In The Material World
(Before proceeding, please note, this is all written from the point of view of a student of Sanatana Dharma who is still struggling to understand the specifics of these concepts. Errors and misunderstandings on my end are to be expected, and with time I will learn to correct my thinking.)
As I go deeper into my studies of Sanatana Dharma (or “Hinduism” as it is more commonly called), what is it am I learning? Well, lots of stuff, and a lot of it difficult to explain, probably in part because I do not yet understand it all well enough to explain it fluidly. As you may well imagine, at the moment I am as busy unlearning as learning, and this is where the trouble starts. Learning is always a challenging process, even though having to unlearn is not an uncommon part of the learning process. When becoming a serious student of Sanatana Dharma, unlearning seems to be far more important, and from an esoteric perspective, being a student of Sanatana Dharma is almost entirely about unlearning, untangling, detaching and letting go. Now, multiply the struggles of unlearning times a thousand when transitioning from a Western religious and social structure to Hindu spirituality. At the core of this unlearning process are the vasanas, as those are what we must unlearn, let go of, and detach ourself from.
Let’s begin with what I’m learning that is easiest to explain, and that is not only how to be a teacher, but more importantly, how to be a good student. I teach at SAW (Sequential Artists Workshop), and I know who the ideal student is in my mind, and knowing this, I have to humble myself to that place now that the tables have been turned and I am the sysha (student). After all, how can I ask of my students something I am unwilling to give of myself? Ultimately what this comes down to is being willing to not only listen, but to empty my cup. I don’t mean “empty my cup” in a general zen-cliche way, I mean specifically to empty my cup every single time I have a question; to empty it of the answers I want to hear, expectations, and of old answers. By this, I mean to ask questions from a standpoint of wanting to know rather than from the standpoint of defending some preconceived idea I might be attached to.
It is insanely frustrating to teach someone who is less questioning me to understand than to defend themselves for coming to me with a full cup overflowing with ideas and ideologies they are not even willing to consider letting go of. America has become a country of monolithic ideologies of all sorts, not the least of which manifest as insanely rigid political constructs through which far too many people view every aspect of life, especially in this age of deeply unhealthy political obsession… and people are doing this without even realizing they have wandered so deep into such a dark cave. Some students just won’t empty their cups, with those students it’s best to let go, teach them the particulars of whatever technique they are worried about, and let them go about struggling to keep their overfull cups from spilling over, which is a sad place from which to teach, because the best teachers do not teach technique only, they teach life as they understand it. A student who is not willing to learn about life, but only wants to learn what they choose to learn is a very frustrating student indeed. Most teachers don’t merely know more about inking or watercolor, they know more about living, as is inevitable with the aging process, light begins to fall into the shadowy corners of our delusions. Just as the sun travels over a landscape, illuminating at first the East-facing side of things, one who has only lived to early afternoon has not been able to see into the shadowy sides to the West what one who has survived until evening has seen.
“Siva, the merciful, removes ignorance even as the sun removes impurities and darkness by means of its rays. When ignorance is dispelled, the knowledge of Siva begins to function.”
I have learned that being a good student means knowing when the right student, the right wisdom and the right teacher have come together at the right time. It’s about being conscious enough to recognize that when it happens, and being wise enough to humble yourself before it, as well as being humble enough to empty your cup and surrender to the wisdom and the teacher.
I have been studying Sanatana Dharma for some time now, and though I resist buying too deeply into this idea, it is said by some in India that one cannot be converted to Hinduism, one must be born into it. While this is wholly wrong… I have had to recognize that there is more than a little truth in it… however much that realization hurts. Hindus and India are not like America and The Republians (I mean “Christians,” sorry, I get those two mixed up sometimes… but so do they), in that the fundamental role of Christianity in American culture is not the same role Hinduism plays in Indian culture. The fundamental concepts and commonly taught lessons of mainstream American Christianity are not entirely the same concepts and lessons taught in Hinduism, or at the very least, there are not as many options or possibilities within the confines of mainstream Christianity. In mainstream (not all, but in “mainstream” middle-American) Christianity, the road is obscenely narrow and omnidirectional. I grew up bound to the hellish confines of that narrow one-way road, and have emerged into the highway of Indian spirituality where there are numerous lanes coming from multiple directions and splitting off into millions of exits. Without a GPS (Guru Positioning System), it’s easy to get lost. Simply put, by reading the Bible in a simplistic way, and by going to the average church, one can more or less understand what most Americans consider “Christianity” fairly easily, even if they did not grow up Christian. The same is not true of Hinduism where options, possibilities and complexities can be overwhelming to one who has not grown up immersed in the culture that has immersed itself in it, and I mean wholly overwhelming. In that way, yes, it is difficult to make a transition to Hindu spirituality from outside India, but Sanatana Dharma is, in the end, a spiritual system that has no boundaries, no race, no gender, and no one right path. Ultimately, this is where the issue of vasanas reveal themselves as being particularly confounding to a Western seeker, especially to one without a guru. We all, as we embrace Sanatana Dharma, be we American or Indian, have to struggle with our vasanas, but a good student from the West… well, their struggles against their vasanas are far messier.
So how does this all begin to tie together? Let’s start by saying that I welcome as many Indian people into my life as cross my path, and when around them, I immediately become a humble student with absolutely no desire to bicker or debate modern American relativistic nonsense with them. A people who grew up in an environment immersed in Santana Dharma simply think differently than those who grew up in our American environment, and thank God for that. Often my vasanas become revealed and begin to loosen simply by being humble around the Indians in my life. Only recently I learned a very important lesson about being a good student. For a long time I have struggled with what to call myself, a “convert to Hinduism,” and while talking this over with an Indian friend, he suggested that for starters, I would have a much easier time of it if I consider myself a “sysha (a student) of Sanatana Dharma” rather than as one who has “converted to Hinduism.” PING! Wow, the light went on, instant liberation! Now, like all syshas, like all on this path, American or Indian, I am a seeker, the playing field has been leveled. Additionally, as a “sysha” rather than a “convert,” I have eliminated the need to “know;” no pressure to be perfect, no need to apologize for being an American white girl using the label “Hindu.” By being around people who have been immersed in the culture of Sanatana Dharma, we can approach our vasanas more consciously through listening to their wisdom.
Yeah… so what are “vasanas?” Let’s start with a couple of other concepts, concepts such as karma, maya, avidya, and then vasanas. And let’s start by saying that this is how I understand these concepts at the moment, and I welcome any input as to where I have misunderstood any of these concepts. As it is essentially the cornerstone on which our illusions are built, let’s start with maya, meaning, “not this.” Maya is essentially the concept that the material world is an illusion, or at least that our attachment to it, as who and what we are, is the illusion. There are tons of subtleties to the way maya manifests, and like all things in Hinduism, were we given a multiple choice test and asked to choose between 3 definitions of maya and a fourth option, “D) All of the above,” the answer in Hinduism is virtually always D. But maya is where the trouble starts, it’s where we all get lost, it is the the rope that binds us all. Maya leads to avidya, avidya creates vasanas, and vasanas are the tendencies from which we act, thereby creating karma both good and bad.
Avidya essentially means our personal ignorances, ignorances which have been born of our immersion in maya. These avidya (ignorances) manifest in us as our immersion in maya convinces us we are the ego, and this makes us blind to our true nature… which is not our identification with the body and the mind, but with our Atman (the particle of God in us that we are meant to realize).
Lastly, due to the world of maya and our ensuing avidya, thus our vasanas are created. The Vasanas as I understand the concept now, are our inherent tendencies, the habits, thoughts and compulsions that we engage in primarily as our reactions to avidya, which stemmed from maya. These vasanas may be positive, they may be negative; they may have been created in this life, or we may have come into this life with them. The vasanas seem to be our highly personal cosmic illusory inner thumbprint. These thoughts, habits and compulsions are what drive us, and they manifest as actions, or at least as the motivations behind actions, and the actions create karma. These vasanas keep us in a state of avidya, slaves to maya, and generate endless karma. Vasanas are what drive us to maintain our belief that we are the ego. When Westerners talk about karma, they often seem to think that is the BIG idea in Hinduism, but the truth is, in becoming realized, karma is a secondary issue to removal of the vasanas. By working on my vasanas dilligently, I am finding that my karma is straightening itself out. In other words, in my experience, we need to worry less about karma than our vasanas, for if we eliminate or exhaust our vasanas, our karma is cleansed in the wake of that elimination as we will have automatically begun living, thinking, behaving and acting in ways that correct and create better karma. By rooting out our vasanas, we naturally drift towards more conscious actions and more positive karma. In life, once we become conscious, we can begin to exhaust, fulfill, let go of, or eliminate our vasanas.
At least, that’s how I understand it all at this moment. I am certain with time I will have to relearn some of this.
The importance of rooting out the vasanas being more important than worrying about my karma has been a huge discovery for me. I mean, let’s just say that in the complicated world of Hinduism, having one thing that will work itself out in the wake of our other efforts is a huge relief. Some of the major vasanas I carried into my studies and thinking, be they good or bad, be they from previous lives or vasanas that have developed throughout the course of this lifetime, have influenced my journey as a student. As I untangle myself from Western ideas and Christianity, these vasanas have become so unconscious and instinctive that I often walk around with my cup full to overflowing while thinking I had emptied it. And that’s just it, perhaps I had emptied it, and emptied it time and again, but until I consciously recognize and work through my vasanas, my cup will not remain empty, it will refill itself time and again. I repeat, the realization I have come to is that one must continuously empty the cup, and in a sense, in emptying the cup we are pouring out our vasanas and our avidya, and we are being good syshas, the sort of students I want in my classes.
I have a number of vasanas, not just ones born of my Christian upbringing. I had the seemingly positive vasana, since childhood, of being creative and desiring wealth and recognition for my creative work. Now, that sounds good, but what happened when the work has been done and the rewards do not come? What happened to me was misery and a drunken bitterness. It seems to me that vasanas, good or bad, create karmic traps and unconscious actions. On the darker side, I have vasanas that have been forged in me like iron, vasanas made of the iron mined from the deepest of holes, holes I dug lifetimes ago and holes I have dug with great intention in this very lifetime. These are the holes I return to, be they good or bad. Great mines, and the dark ones are great holes of depression, desire, anxiety, fear, literalism, attachment, pride. Holes I myself dug to such great depths. That’s what vasanas are, the compulsion to dig holes for ourselves. Before we can even stop digging we have to ask, why are we digging these holes? What will it mean if I stop digging them? When all your life all you have done is dig those holes, the thought of stopping can be terrifying. Those holes are our realities. The thought of stopping can be so terrifying for so many that they are unwilling to even consider it, and sadly for others, the thought of stopping is unthinkable, for they are either too caught up in maya, too limited, or perhaps they are simply afraid of what might happen were they to stop digging. We are in bondage, limited, in our own holes. Our lives can become so entangled in maya that even thinking about getting out can be far too devastating to consider.
Devastating, destructive, Shivanic! But, some of us, we ache for such devastation, such destruction, and though we might resist at first, eventually we have to learn to be grateful for the destruction, and we have to learn to trust Shiva, and to beg him to dance his dance of destruction all through our illusions, all through our lives, so we may finally begin to live our lives in conscious joyful awareness of the illusion.
NEXT, Part 2: It’s All Too Much