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Chapter V - Unitive Action and Renunciation

CHAPTER V: Karma Sannyasa Yoga

         Unitive Action and Renunciation (Renouncing the benefits of action through yoga)


         There is a great lesson to be learned by watching ocean waves interact with the shore: unitive action is how Nature works. Without any thought, objects follow the exact course that is the sum of all the forces acting on them, every microsecond or even out of time, producing a smooth and harmonious flow.

         The ocean’s incoming and outflowing surges near a beach mingle and interpenetrate each other in a dazzlingly complex dance, further shaped by the wind and rain, the contours of the sand, and the detritus strewn about. The result is effortless perfection at all times, which we can easily observe but not easily model. To mathematically calculate how to represent all the interactions, even in a miniscule area, is staggeringly complicated. Fortunately we don’t have to: nature does it by itself, and all we have to do is look. Any interpretation we impose inevitably interferes with the original flow, though we can console ourselves that even our disruptions are also perfect in their own way.

         What we call instinct in animals is a kind of liquid flow that carries them through a lifetime of complicated situations without conscious deliberation, as far as we can tell. Humans also have valuable instincts, but they are routinely subsumed in incomplete rationality and ignored. Unitive action coupled with the renunciation of impediments is a way of opening back up to the instinctive side of life while retaining conscious monitoring. It can be argued that the reason we so often “miss the mark” is that we have suppressed our creative instincts in favor of a deliberately conceived strategy of self-protection. While safety provides a welcome sense of relief from the storms of life, the joy of integrated creative action is of another magnitude entirely.

         As young children, we used to effortlessly “go with the flow,” meaning we allowed nature to take its course without inhibiting or deflecting it. Over time most of us have lost the knack, substituting a faint echo cobbled together out of hope, habit and training. The Gita is attempting to have us regain a childlike innocence, allowing us to imbibe the extra dimensions of our psyche that are ordinarily forgotten or else disparaged.

         Normal human behavior is mediated by thought. Thought attempts to create a seamless flow out of many separate and distinct points, and has a greater or lesser degree of success. True joy only revives if we can relinquish control and cast ourselves into the ecstasy of the moment.

         Yogis aim for such expertise in action, but there are two distinct types we need to be clear about.

         The first level of expertise is to be able to visualize a goal and act to achieve it. We have to learn how to marshal our abilities and focus them on tasks. This is the level of ordinary skill development that achieves prowess in a chosen field, like art, sports, business and science. Despite its importance to a rewarding life, in the modern world with its innumerable “conveniences” many people have lost the ability to carry out simple tasks effectively. It requires a complex combination of positive motivation and negative avoidance of pitfalls to work well.

         The second level of expertise is to achieve a neutral balance between the positive and negative impulses, which brings the interference of the conscious mind to a halt and allows the instinctual flow we attribute to the Absolute to carry us forward. This is the spiritual level of action. Even in the vaunted Information Age, few know this secret of yoga.

         Both types of expertise are valuable, but when the first kind is employed as a substitute for the second, as it often is, the spiritual flow is misdirected into dead ends and eddies in the current. The various isms the human race is so prone to adopt mark the intrusion of the first, linear type of expertise into the arena of the second, global or holistic type. In other words, the thought we identify as spiritual is often mere conceptualization rather than realization, or worshipping an idol in place of what it supposedly represents. The Isa Upanishad describes it as a glorious golden image of the sun that hides the real sun behind it.

         Needless to say, when Krishna speaks of excelling in action, he is referring to the second type untainted by the first. Much of the work of a disciple is to distinguish between the two and to maintain the proper orientation where the spiritual flows into and enlivens the rational while not permitting the rational to usurp and deaden the spiritual.

         Because of its prime importance, the Gita provides one more chapter to knit together the strands of how to act wisely, before offering its take on meditation in the following chapter.


1)         Arjuna said:

         You recommend the renunciation of action, Krishna, and again yoga also; tell me, duly determined, which of these two is spiritually better.


         Arjuna is not yet clear about action, in the same way that most people are confused: our true destiny must be intuited, yet we are presented with all sorts of well-defined possibilities that will most likely lead to dead ends. The well-known mid-life crisis marks the stage in life when a person realizes the futility of dedicating their life to someone else’s dictates, and begins to wonder how they can be more themselves. The modern world offers medications and innumerable distractions to suppress the inner spiritual urge, but the Gita is a resource for all who refuse to capitulate, those who, along with Rene Daumal, “suffer from an incurable need to understand.”

         Arjuna’s question permits Krishna to further clarify the issue. Krishna has been teaching a method to effectively break free from the bondage produced by action, while remaining engaged in every activity called for by the circumstances. This “elusively subtle” business will benefit from more examination in this chapter.

         Absolute renunciation is impossible. No one can ever totally escape action; in fact, thought itself is a kind of action. The universe is made out of action. There is no truly static entity anywhere. And as our conscious existence is produced by our thinking, we are at the very least witnesses to our own lives. To dissociate from a necessary minimum involvement with action would be to terminate our existence. Even the tendency toward dissociation is a fertile source of depressive feelings, as the cosmic inner urges are unable to find an outlet and surrender in despair.

         Nataraja Guru’s translation of sannyasa karmanam is “effective transcending of action.” The literal meaning is simply “renunciation of works or action.” Since Krishna has definitely not recommended renunciation of action, Nataraja Guru correctly reveals the intent. The meaning of this interchange between guru and disciple is lost if simply giving up action is considered effective. Something else is afoot here. Not surprisingly Arjuna is falling back on his old concepts, because he has not fully understood the radical nature of true yoga. Right away Krishna will begin to expound further on the subtleties of action and what exactly renunciation means, and he will also chide his disciple for his inadequate grasp of what has already been elucidated.


2)         Krishna said:

         Both renunciation and unitive action have emancipation as their common effect; of the two, however, unitive action is superior to (mere) renunciation of action.


         Krishna, being a good guru, immediately gives an unequivocal answer to his disciple: although all lifestyles have their justifications, acting skillfully is better than sitting still. He has been definite about this in the past, so the Gita’s decided opinion is being reprised here to make it patently clear. Recall verse III, 4: “By refraining from initiating activities a person does not come to have the attainment of transcending action, nor can one by renunciation alone come to perfection.” In the present context, Krishna is being somewhat more generous toward inaction than he was earlier, but we don’t have to pin him down exactly, since mere renunciation is not the way we will be taking. At the time the Gita was written, author Vyasa was battling conservatism and entrenched orthodoxy, so he wanted to reemphasize the superiority of dialectically balanced unitive action over the mere suppression of activity that is so appealing to less critical minds.

         Unitive activity is not some exotic, remote behavior for the spiritually adept, it is simply doing the things you do anyway, only with expertise and not clumsily. Duality promotes doubt and ineptitude; unity is smooth and artistic. Baldly stated, renunciation means striving to do little or nothing; unitive action means doing everything very well. In spiritual life the idea of renunciation often includes doing what you are told by an organization or your guru, as opposed to using the wisdom you have gleaned to chart your own course. Ideally this can provide excellent learning opportunities. Like children, spiritual neophytes learn primarily by imitation, and only gradually develop independence. We may well benefit from a training program for a short period, but if the goal is to instill obedience rather than model emancipation it is anything but spiritual.

         Selfless service is a highly touted version of the renunciation of action, where instead of completely giving up action you just abandon basing it on your personal needs and desires. You apprentice yourself to a path that is said to be good for you. In a world where personal freedom is severely curtailed, this is a reasonable option, a safe movement toward yoga. Krishna politely grants equal potential to renunciation, but maintains that following our own star is superior to dutifully following a preconceived program, no matter how beneficial it is. Inner inspiration is the way the Absolute infuses life with vitality.

         The broad dichotomy of Samkhya rationalism and Yoga from Chapter II is gradually being effaced in an all-encompassing vision. This is the preliminary thrust of the first third of the Gita. First we are to establish a unitive state of mind. In the second third the Absolute is revealed, and in the last third the revelation is incorporated into the life of the disciple in a way that consolidates a permanent transformation.


3)         That man should be recognized as a perennial renouncer who neither hates nor desires; free indeed from conflicting pairs (of interests) O Arjuna, he is happily released from the bondage (of necessity).


         The simple instruction of the initial stage of discipleship, to give up expectations, has now evolved into the full-fledged practice of yoga, where pairs of opposites are counterpoised to neutralize their impact. Here the renouncer and the yogi are brought together as embodying a single outlook. A proper renouncer is a yogi.

         We so often identify with our desires and wonder why we would ever want to give them up. Why do we desire things? Because we believe they will make us satisfied and happy. But what if we were already satisfied and happy? What if we resided in a place of complete satisfaction at all times? Then it would be absurd for us to desire anything, nor would there be any need to push anything away as a threat to our happiness. The aim of spirituality is to attain a global state of satisfaction that engulfs and subsumes all the vagaries of existence.

         Once again, you don’t achieve total happiness by mounting a pitched battle against your desires. That’s actually a formula for unhappiness, of a bitter opposition to all that’s wrong with the world and your place in it. When you settle into a solidly grounded state of lasting happiness, distracting desires naturally lose their appeal. Putting it another way, when we are satisfied we are not dissatisfied. It’s hard to argue with that!

         The Gita gives us an uncomplicated definition to help us recognize a wise person: if they avoid polarization in duality and remain steady in a neutral balance, they have achieved yoga. Further, when they are able to stay neutral as between attraction and repulsion, want and dislike, and all those matched pairs, they are happily released from the travails that invariably accompany polarization. This is by no means a state of deadness, it is a state of supreme delight and involvement. If what you are doing leads you to experience less, you’re missing the boat.

         My own guru, Nitya, was an enduring example of the steadiness of the perennial renouncer. He never worried about where his next meal was coming from, or how he could afford anything essential, and yet the means always came to him. Moreover, personal attacks or praise had no effect on him. He always remained grounded in a blissful state that was wholly independent of any outside factors. When visitors arrived with their emotions churning, seeking succor or blaming him for their problems, his immunity from being upset by them gave them a solid pole to hold onto, by which they could pull themselves out of the mire. You can read about how such a state is achieved and lived in Nitya’s autobiography, Love and Blessings, with an especially good example in the chapter titled “Delivered into the Arms of Providence.”


4)         That rationalism and yogic self-discipline are distinct, only children say, not the well-informed; one well-established in either one of them obtains the result of both.


         Krishna continues the process of convergence. The more the differences in life are investigated, the more closely they resemble each other. This is the role of contemplation: to reduce or eliminate conflict by ameliorating the apparent disparities.

         Remember, the primary polarity that must be addressed is between wisdom and action, or more generally, metaphysics and physics, or ideas and objects. Nowadays we might call it religion and science. To see them as unconnected is foolish, and can be based only on a superficial examination such as children—the philosophically immature—make without reflection. Krishna is chiding Arjuna, and by extension all the pundits who insist on one or the other as exclusively preferable. His intention is always to unite rather than divide.

         It’s not that we should become either a rigid scientist or an uncritical doer of good deeds. Pure ideation without complementary activity lacks any impact, while action without ideation is merely chaotic. Both action and thought must occur together; they mutually reinforce and supplement one another. In fact, they are not two. It is possible to think of them in isolation, but in practice they are inseparable.

         People love to choose sides because it is our tribal inheritance, but it’s something we need to grow out of, because it is tearing the world apart. The Gita is a venerable instruction manual for knitting our divisions back together.

         Paralleling the schism between energy and matter, the modern thinker is likely to conceive of a vast gulf between these outwardly opposed principles. The mathematician is extolled for the abstraction of her thought, whereas the religious adept is praised for concrete action that is wholly directed by “God.” There is much to commend such extremism. Mental theorizations can be pushed to towering remoteness, and impulsive acts seemingly in tune with the Tao or the invisible inner landscape have their own mysterious attraction. But the Gita seeks always to discern an all-inclusive middle way, and it will take its entire eighteen chapters to make a proper case for unity that will satisfy a thoughtful seeker of truth. There is no reason a scientist shouldn’t enjoy religious wonder and a worshipper shouldn’t be permitted a functional intelligence.

         The romantic ideals of wisdom or action alone—-of the egghead scientist or the tuned-in religious adept in flowing robes—may crash on the shoals of actual life situations, such as those Arjuna is about to encounter on the battlefield. The isolation of abstraction can be heartrending, as it removes a person from contact with loved ones, not to mention the effects of their own actions. On the other hand, unreflective actors are easy to manipulate by self-interested others. The Buddhist principle of mindfulness touches on the Gita’s secret of perfect integration of thought and action. When, due to the excitement generated by expert involvement, the course of the mind becomes more than a rote formula and leaps to life as a bliss-filled reality, it is what the Gita calls intelligence in action. In II, 50, Krishna defined yoga as reason in action. It is the state where jnana and karma are united.

         Any objections that come to mind at this point are not really childish, they can be valuable markers for whether the teaching succeeds or not. Reasonable objections will all be met and overcome as we proceed. Krishna’s exhortation is made so the objections do not lead to rejection; they should energize a deeper examination of the ideas involved. If they still fall short after a respectful study, then we should throw them away. But these are first-rate, life-changing insights of a phalanx of brilliant seers, deserving of our close attention. The modern tendency to drop a subject at the least qualm may divert us from unearthing treasures in the most promising territory.


5)         That status attained by rationalists is reached also by yogis; he who thus sees rationality and yoga as one—he (alone) sees.


         We live in an exciting time when science and religion (alias physics and metaphysics) are converging, after a long period of hostility where they carried on as jilted lovers. I have incorporated some of the most exciting new scientific discoveries in this commentary, and there will always be more to come. Science is busily probing deep into the unseen and the speculative, from the beginning of time and unbelievably distant galaxies down to nearby nanoseconds and picoangstroms, armed with amazingly fine instruments and complex mathematical calculations. There is a laser measuring device that can detect the deformation of a concrete slab made by a dime, the smallest U.S. coin (2.2 grams). There is even a camera now that can film light in slow motion, each frame measuring a trillionth of a second (see Unbelievable! Like science, religion also addresses the unseen world, and at its best is not hidebound or reactionary but open to new and different discoveries as unique expressions of divinity.

         Nataraja Guru made the observation that during medieval times, the Christian Inquisition drove science into an oppositional stance from which it has yet to recover. And it’s hard to blame anyone for being cautious and highly skeptical about those who defend their outmoded beliefs and power positions to the point of committing torture and murder. Such types are still thriving in our day, and cannot be ignored. But real religion is something else entirely. Far from closed and never dangerous, it beckons us to learn and grow with intense enthusiasm.

         Here’s the gist of the problem that this verse takes on. It doesn’t matter whether you claim, “There is only God,” or “There is only Nature,” both are only partially true, in precisely the same degree. They are merely conceptual abstractions about the underlying substance, whatever it may be, and if we hold to one position or the other we will not be able to fully grasp the true nature of what exists.

         Truth has to be One; there cannot be two contradictory truths. Religion and science both seek truth. A little bit of it has been discovered, but by no means all. It would be absurd to claim that all truth is already known. Fools proclaim an exclusive patent on truth, but legitimate seekers admit that truth is unlimited, open-ended, and waiting to be discovered. They are convinced that the fact that they don’t know everything is a blessing and not a curse, a matter of pride and not of shame. It is so much more fun to wonder about life with an open heart and mind than to try to hold onto a static secondhand vision. The aha! or eureka! phenomenon works with scientific puzzles as well as metaphysical conundrums.

         This verse reminds us that the excellent attitude of tolerance and contemplative absorption attainable by mystics and pragmatists alike, is in fact an attainment. We have to work at it. Our animal instincts might lead us to be jealous and intolerant of people we don’t understand, but our best scriptures and textbooks, our gurus and professors, teach us to overcome these limitations. Scriptures come right out and say it, while the textbooks show us how one generation’s holy grail often winds up being the next generation’s object of ridicule. Either way, humility is not so hard to learn, unless your heart is hardened to it.


6)         But non-unitive renunciation is full of pain to achieve; one unitively harmonized, of subdued ways, without any delay attains the Absolute.


         Non-unitive renunciation covers a wide range of spiritual practices, including all the ways we try to achieve something by the incremental accumulation of merit. Ordinary spirituality is based on dissatisfaction that impels movement toward imagined states of future satisfaction, whereas unitive spirituality accepts all states as perfect despite being temporary. It aims to appreciate the present to the utmost rather than reject it.

         Separation from the bliss of the present causes pain, ranging from mild anxiety to soul searing anguish. The most painful version of non-unitive renunciation is the hair shirt stuff, ferocious attempts by desperate escape artists to dissociate the mind from the body by self-inflicted injury. If dissatisfaction is the motivator, then ratcheting up the pain should maximize the motivation, and the more of it the better. When the Gita was written there were a lot of extremely painful and negative disciplines widely practiced; a few persist even to the present. It may be the impetus for them was self-hatred brought about by the difficulties of life. As far as we know, there was nothing like the hatred of the flesh made famous by the Semitic religions, it was more like demonstrating the flesh’s irrelevance, or at least the will to transcend its flaws, but the penance aspect was if anything even more extreme. In modern times, abnormal psychology amply demonstrates that the desire to inflict masochistic harm on the body has not disappeared. The non-unitive angle is that somehow the body or the ego or even the whole person is believed to be something other than God, and therefore second-rate or even evil. Since the senses are believed to block the perception of God they must be banished so that God may stand revealed.

         Self-humiliation is actually a negative form of fixation on the ego. The body with its concomitant suffering takes center stage, and smothering it becomes a perverse and demonic preoccupation.

         Contrast this with a system that does not require any stress at all. The universe was created for the pure joy of it, and the play of innocence is a delight in itself. Balancing and harmonizing the body and mind is a thrilling adventure, full of interest and absorption. It is inclusive rather than exclusive: it can and should be shared with one’s fellow beings. It is a game of endless variety and beauty, and playing it with abandon instantly reveals our connection with the Absolute, since we too are That.

         We can attain the Absolute without any delay because it is our true nature. Once you clear away the imaginary hurdles we have all been inculcated with, and stop identifying with the small ‘s’ self they have produced, what remains is the Real.


         The most important point is that self-realization is not an outcome of cumulative action, it represents nothing more or less than the clear comprehension of Truth. From birth we encounter programs that build on previously established platforms, such as learning to read and write and do arithmetic, so much so that it becomes a core assumption that that’s all there is to life. But it’s not so hard to see that a wholesale mystery cannot be revealed in incremental stages. Except for moments of breakthrough, all our searching takes place within the known, no matter how passionately we wish it were otherwise. We can easily build Babel towers to reach imaginary heavens, but if we do not know where truth lies they are certain to be built in the wrong direction, and when they crumble, the construction crew is scattered to the winds. What creative discovery requires is an entirely different, non-cumulative methodology.

         Realization is a far cry from what we have come to expect in our world of stepwise effects. You either get it or you don’t. You are either awake or you aren’t. Yet it isn’t all or nothing: we always get only a part, but the part is terrific enough. There is no first place prize to be won. The reward is all in the joy of playing the game.

         Additionally, religions often imply that realization is about achieving some well-defined fixed quantity, like holiness or heaven, rather than participating in the unfolding of a mysterious process. As with the attainment of social normalcy, it has to be accomplished by our personality being swept aside and replaced by something more respectable. As a consequence, nearly everyone learns to be dissatisfied with who they are. We are not okay, and are only tolerable if we are moving toward a widely accepted version of what okay means. Basically, we have learned to hate ourselves, and so a great many of our actions are intended as compensation for our perceived inadequacies. Because we’re not okay, we construct a persona that looks like it might appeal to the rest of us. And since everyone is doing it, we have come to live in a vast constructed stage set that squelches us rather than allows us the freedom to express ourselves. We spend our energies vying for the most righteous image to substitute for the reality of who we are, instead of trying to discover and value ourselves. Because of this, even our best intentions are inauthentic.

         When we think of God as wholly other, we are bound to seem like born sinners who are an embarrassment to Him. By contrast, the beauty of the Upanishadic vision is that everyone is the Absolute’s unique attempt to express itself. Despite our imperfections, which are legion, we are the way the Absolute brings itself into existence. This is 180 degrees different from the lost sinners of the popular imagination. We are the very expression of the Absolute, so it is our innate calling to be as excellent as we can be. We are carrying the torch for an Absolute that uses us for its implementation. Anyone who sincerely comes to understand this has found the essence of their dharma. It’s such a tremendous realization we could become ecstatic with joy at the mere blessing of being alive.

         We all face the challenge of making abstract ideas real, of real-izing them. Sometimes we succeed. In one sense we can’t lead up to this type of success, and in another sense everything we do leads up to it. The one certainty is that it remains independent of any simplistic formula.

         We have to press past our concepts and percepts to see the whole structure of our being. Our true nature has become more than a point source in the Absolute, it has developed into a skeletal system on which all our thinking is strung, like its organs, muscles and various conduits. We are to become physicians to heal ourselves, based on our actual psychic viscera rather than an imaginary idealized model. When we do so, our mental health flourishes in concert with our physical well-being, and vice versa.

         The blazing realization the rishis wrote into their Upanishads is that we are the Absolute in our core. We are not some unwelcome scourge polluting the Garden of Eden, but the very essence of paradise, the part that can see, and know, and enjoy. Living in fear of the presiding deity has withered our hearts and embittered our minds, but that is not the intent of Creation. If God is ashamed of us, it is only because we have failed to thrive, failed to love, failed to care, because that’s what we were put here to do. God is not ashamed because we dare to be ourselves, but because we don’t.

         The best part of who we are is the Absolute itself. That’s the unconscious we are striving to make conscious. We can muck around with the rest too, in order to free ourselves from the evil Fate which is nothing more than the flailing of our injured soul, but in our best moments we need to be reaching for that auspicious Light, that true form, which we are the very expression of. When we rediscover it, we know instinctively we are That.


7)         One affiliated to the unitive way of life, attained to lucidity of Self, of Self-conquest, who has gained a victory over the senses, whose Self-existence has become the same as the Self-existence of all, though active, is unaffected (thereby).


         One of the most mysterious aspects of realization is that one’s sense of separateness disappears. It’s as though we can see we are a small cloud of atomic particles within an immense cloud of atomic particles: there is essentially no difference, no line of demarcation. We are simultaneously separate and identical. While spirit as such is not particulate, this is an apt analogy for it.

         In such a global state of awareness, actions do not color the psyche. In other words, they don’t cause us to erect a personal barrier to keep us distinct from the cloud we are an integral part of. In ordinary consciousness, if someone is mean to us we nurse a grudge or flee the scene, or if we put a lot of energy into a project we may grow attached to its completion and frustrated by impediments. A realized person can simply let go and move on to the next paradigm without clinging, because it’s just as wonderful as the last. There is no yearning for a particular stimulus, mental or physical, because everything is stimulating. Yearning or resenting just prevents us from being open to the next enlightening situation. We do things, and we care about them, but we aren’t devastated when things go haywire, because they are all subsumed in a greater reality that is ever present.


         It’s worthwhile to take a close look at each of the ideas in this verse. Krishna is reminding us that our state of mind has a direct impact on everything we do. If we are in a state of cosmic awareness, we bring that to our life. If we are embittered and confused, that will be our experience in our actions as well. We have to hold hard to unity, because the events of the world have a powerful tendency to reinforce the sense of separateness, and that can tear us apart.

         A yogi is first of all affiliated to the unitive way of life. That means in every situation we must choose the option that unites rather than divides. When you see someone of another race, creed, or religious or sexual affiliation, you have a choice to think of yourself as separate—and superior, of course—or to acknowledge your common humanity. If you choose the latter, you are unaffected in the sense that your naturally loving state of mind is not disrupted. But if you think, “What a horrible person!” you are brought low. You are the one getting upset. Presumably, the other person is quite content to be who they are, thank you very much. The next step toward perdition is to make them feel sorry for being themselves, and many humans take perverse pleasure in doing just that.

         Searching for unifying factors promotes clear thinking in addition to universal amity. What Nataraja Guru calls the lucidity of Self is translated by everyone else as purity. Purity permits lucidity, and it is based on compassionate acceptance. Light passing through clear glass is minimally disturbed, and the more junk on the glass the more the light is impeded or distorted. This is a familiar metaphor for intelligent thinking, and much spiritual effort goes into cleaning up our act, as the saying goes. Impure thinking brings us down, so it needs to be rectified.

         Self-conquest and victory over the senses are closely related. Prejudices are almost always misleading, and appearances are famously deceptive. A yogi must dig deep to a level of clarity beyond both sources of confusion. For instance, when you meet someone who belongs to a rival religion you have the option of throwing up a barricade and hating them or you can take a deep breath and try to treat them as a regular human being. The first tack creates conflict and the second is a learning and growing opportunity. Guess which one is the better choice…. Likewise, if the new friend is shabbily dressed or hasn’t had a bath lately, we can look for the soul beneath the rough exterior or we can pull back in revulsion and keep our distance. Again, it is easy to guess which one Krishna is promulgating. Spiritual stories abound of the weary and unappetizing traveler on your doorstep who is actually the divine incarnate, and we turn them away at our peril.

         Victory over the senses does not mean restraining our feelings, though it is often taken that way. Similarly, conquering our self does not mean subjugating our true nature, although that is a common interpretation. Yoga is all about removing impediments to clarity and presence so that our true nature can shine forth. It is promotion, which is the opposite of suppression.

         Lastly, and of overarching importance, a yogi is not different from the rest of creation. We begin our spiritual path as a wholly distinct person walking in darkness, and we move toward the light in which all beings are illuminated. As long as we imagine ourselves to be separate, our actions will be tainted to the exact degree of our ignorance. Only when the separation is ameliorated are we able to act without stumbling over our mistaken beliefs.

         Once again the yogi is affirmed to be an active player in the game of life. The Gita’s teaching is for us to learn how to live life to the fullest, and not how to escape from a world so desperately in need of our wholehearted participation.


8 & 9) “I do nothing at all”—saying thus, he of unitive ways, who is a philosopher, should think, (while) seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing,

speaking, excreting, grasping, opening and closing the eyes—treating the senses as (merely) related to their (corresponding) sense objects.


         These verses offer an eminently practical technique to retain detachment in the midst of activity, one that works as an antidote to the way our minds become conditioned. Normally when we go through our day we are busy providing a running commentary: “I am eating,” “I am taking a walk,” “I am going to work,” “Now I’m going to sleep,” and all the rest. The very thought that “I am doing this” breeds an attachment to the action. To counteract this natural but binding function of the mind, we are instructed to replace these thoughts when they arise with “I am not doing anything.” The assertion, “I do nothing at all,” is a template for this way of redirecting our attention to the general context instead of focusing on a specific instance. The Absolute is the doer, not we.

         Normally we identify with our personal perspective in any action, and react in resonance with how things affect us. But if we remind ourself that our individuality is an effect of eternal natural forces rather than a causative factor in itself, we can easily relinquish any selfish attachments we still have. We will not lose ourselves in the process; we gain both our true selves and the whole world by surrendering our petty claims.

         “I do nothing at all,” is merely an example: we are not to get stuck on mindless repetition of a phrase. We should be creative. “I am not this body,” “I am not this train of thought,” “I’m not privy to the whole story,” and so on, are all helpful reminders, particularly if we are habitually caught in defending our persona, as most people are. Negatives tend to be more helpful to loosen attachments, but positive mantras can also be brought to bear. “I am coequal to the Whole,” and “All of us are aspects of the Absolute,” and “This person is God,” come to mind. Scientists like to meditate on ideas like “This is how Nature works, and I’m no exception.” These are all great for expanding consciousness and preventing us from getting bogged down in an unspiritual, polarized frame of mind.

         Being conditioned means that we are not perfectly free to respond to situations on their own terms. Instead, we respond with prepared scripts based on our memories of past successes and failures. Training ourselves to notice how our perceptions of the world automatically call forth reciprocal responses allows us to get some distance on such “knee-jerk” reactions. We want to be free to ponder the proper course of action without prejudice. Yogis are not in favor of prejudice, including especially their own. Acting out of prejudice is keenly painful to a contemplative soul dedicated to kindness and fair play. So their meditation is directed toward freedom from prejudice by not capitulating with their habitual initial reactions. And Krishna puts it bluntly: this is what it means to be a philosopher. It is a high achievement, with high requirements for unitive treatment of all aspects of every situation.

         Once an enlightened attitude is in place there is not much need to retrain the psyche like this. But in the meantime Krishna offers us an exceedingly simple mantra to help us develop a wise outlook.


10)         He who acts, placing all actions in the Absolute, having given up attachment, is not affected by sin, like a lotus leaf by water.


         The model of how to properly relate to society is given in the Upanishadic metaphor of the lotus leaf, which sits on the muddy water of its pond but when pulled up it is found to be completely dry. It is “in the world, but not of it,” as the Sufis say. We are free to participate in social life around us to the extent we deem necessary and sufficient, but we must not allow it to make our absolutist vision soggy with lukewarm relativism. Remaining focused on the Absolute automatically produces this ideal type of detachment.

         An additional consideration is that a lotus blossom is pretty enough on its own, but when seen as the focal point of the total ensemble of a pond, it is spectacular. The contrast and the context add greatly to the artistic effect. The Gita’s goal is to be in full bloom right in the midst of worldly activity, not to tear yourself away and sit as a museum piece in solemn isolation.

         As a side note, the “lotus effect” has recently been isolated by scientists and is beginning to be applied to products to make them self-cleaning. The smooth, waxy surface of the lotus is covered with microscopic bumps that allow air to remain beneath the water droplets, and also any dirt. As the drops run off due to gravity, they pick up the dirt as they go, because it’s almost unattached to begin with. I guess all this shows is that the supposed miracles of nature are explainable in scientific terms, if you understand how the laws operate. Metaphorically it tells us that we don’t necessarily have to scrub ourselves clean in a spiritual sense, that detachment is virtually effortless once we align our psyches with the Absolute. Once again we are directed to unite with the Absolute, and all else will follow. If we focus on sin or dirt, we keep adding more even as we scrub some off, and the process never gets us very far.


11)         By the body, by the mind, by intelligence, and even by the senses alone, yogis engage in action, abandoning attachment, for (purposes of) purity of Self.


         To be permitted to engage in action “even by the senses alone” so long as it doesn’t involve attachment, is a startling aspect of the Gita’s teaching, and one that is consistently underplayed in favor of the traditional conceptions of joyless yoga disciplines based on sterile detachment. The Gita being a song, it should not be too surprising that listening to music or visually contemplating beauty, among other sensory experiences, would be appreciated as sublimely purifying. Yogis will take all such events in stride, never being deluded that the transformative power of the experience resides outside their self. Beauty perceived evokes a reciprocal beauty latent within us that otherwise would remain dormant. Nataraja Guru agrees:


Suppression of the senses is spoken of as the first stage of spirituality in other disciplines, but a certain freedom of the senses is permitted in the Gita, and a yogi is to that extent different from a mere ascetic who is only negatively conditioned…. To avoid the stagnation produced by willful inaction and its consequent morbid psychic states, and to permit the free interplay of natural tendencies and impulses, some sort of non-obstructive working out of tendencies is required. Repressions benumb the spirit and cathartic easing is a remedy known to modern psychology. (265)


         The other categories mentioned here are included in this generous and joyous view of life. The pleasures of the body, like exercise, sports, sex, or simply being aware of being alive, can produce euphoric states conducive to contemplation. If they are treated as ends in themselves, producers of the euphoria, then their spiritual value is bypassed, but when taken for what they are as aspects of existence, they have substantial value. The same is true for mental pursuits like learning, planning, examining and remembering, and also intellectual and intuitive engagement with others, both human and nonhuman. In short, all action can be liberating if treated correctly.

         The graded series of this verse is based on subtlety, the body being the most gross; then mind, the manager of the body; the intellect, with its abstract reasoning ability; and, curiously, the senses alone as the most subtle. Usually we associate them with the body, but the reference here must be to the pure, direct experience of beauty in its various guises, via the senses. In a way, such a direct connection with the environment is highly spiritual. It is primary, and only later becomes mediated by the selectivity of the intellect, mind and body. So taste that delicious food, listen to those gorgeous sounds, feel that smooth skin, smell that flower and watch that sunset. If you can do it without interpretation, it is the essence of embodied spiritual life. Let yourself go!

         Speaking of the intellect, both my guru and his guru and his guru were extremely intelligent fellows. When I began my studies I was quite skeptical of the value of intellectual knowledge. Like many others I assumed that intelligence was somehow foreign to spirituality, which was too “pure” for conceptual thoughts. Nitya kept hitting the class I was in with complex philosophy that literally went in my one ear and out the other, even when I tried my hardest. After I asked to become his disciple, he made sure to point out my limitations in public by asking me questions that placed my ignorance on display for all to see. Once I asked him what the purpose of philosophy was, how it related to spirituality. He just said, “That’s just how some of us naturally are. We like it.” Another time he drily answered, “It’s so I don’t get bored.” Some people are inclined by their dharma to wonder about things, to dig beneath the surface, and others aren’t. Many years after those humiliating times when I thought Bishop Berkeley was a pair of towns in California, I began to vaguely realize Nitya had been trying to uncover my own well-suppressed natural bent for problem solving, which certainly touches on philosophy. His technique was shocking and painful to my ego, but where a non-philosopher might be injured by being so publicly humiliated, someone like me who was young and naively following faddish ideas could be coaxed out into something meaningful and more in tune with my inherent abilities. At the time it seemed unfair that I was singled out, but now I can see it was a blessing in (heavy) disguise. Other people were treated differently, in keeping with their natural talents. It takes a wise teacher to be able to see into people’s souls when they themselves cannot, and implement a program of learning appropriate to their psyches.

         All that aside, the point here is that the Gita teaches us to experience the Absolute in whatever we do and wherever we are, not dividing up the world into imaginary spiritual and non-spiritual parts. A sports enthusiast can access the Absolute best in bodily activities, while an intellectual would be miserable in those same activities, and vice versa. Discover what is right for you and go there, assured that what you find spiritually elevating is embraced by the openness of the Gita regarding the Absolute.


12)         The one of unitive discipline, discarding benefit-motive, attains to ultimate peace; the one of non-unitive discipline, being desire-motivated, attached to results, is bound.


         Once again Krishna attempts to teach us the subtleties of detachment. Sometimes a negative example serves better than a positive one. Here’s what detachment is often thought to mean: The universe sprang into being (present cycle) 13 billion years ago. It spent 8 billion years laying the groundwork for our own solar system, followed by five billion years of painstaking evolution under our sun, during which time life arose and slowly developed into more and more complex forms. None of them were particularly conscious, but step by step various organs came into play, including brains. These ran on something called instinct until an unspeakably vast level of complexity was achieved, with more potential synaptic connections than there are particles in the known universe by some estimates. A critical mass of interactions set off a kind of chain reaction, and sentience was born. As waves of electrical impulses danced and interacted on this amazing product of “blind” evolution, beings for the first time became capable of pondering their place in creation. But they were dull-witted still. It took several hundred thousand to several million more years to achieve writing and advanced language skills. And music and poetry, certainly the highest expressions of evolution to date. True self-awareness with manifold capabilities for expression was finally achieved only quite recently. And what does this highly advanced being think? What is the most profound idea it can come up with? That it should stop interacting with its environment and shut down all mental processes. Rather than maintaining full participation in this wondrous continuum of evolutionary development, it should become “detached” and quit the game. Stop everything, in the name of The Lord. Sounds more like the evolution of depression to me. As Douglas Adams facetiously put it on page one of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

         It’s important to realize that the Gita is recommending withdrawal from certain attachments to help us reacquaint ourselves with the vertical essence of life, but is not by any means ruling out all horizontal activities, only the ones that likely would cause us grief. An exact “right” attitude can’t be pinned down, but there is nothing wrong with having fun, even sensory fun, as noted in the previous verse. Many seers are acutely alive to the world around them, while others are withdrawn and introverted. This is merely a personal predilection; with nothing right or wrong about either choice. When in doubt, please err on the side of enjoying yourself, as long as it does little or no harm to others. Pondering the actual meaning of ideas like these is the very wisdom sacrifice recommended by the Gita as the highest form of activity.

         The difference in the attitudes highlighted in this verse is between an instantaneous union with the Absolute as opposed to one imagined to be the product of a long drawn out procedure. Popular systems tout things like one million pranayamas (regulated breaths) or ten thousand pranams (postures) to attain a desired state of enlightenment. Leaving aside whether such programs work at all or what they might accomplish beyond what is desired, what happens if you lose count and only do 9999? Does the divine wait breathlessly for you to do that last one, so it can bridge the gap for you? Or does the benefit gradually ebb like a leaky tire, back to 6000, then 2000, then zero? It is possible that some wiseacre guru once got rid of an irritating disciple by ordering up the lengthy procedure, and then onlookers thought, “Wow, the Guru told that guy to do such and such a million times. It must be a secret technique. Let’s do it too.” That’s how religions are born.

         Human beings love to prove their worthiness by meeting challenges, and they love to count, because it measures progress in accomplishing the task. Wily gurus can keep acolytes at bay for long periods using tasks that require a combination of hard work and counting. It reminds me of my aunt, who when she wanted some time to herself, would give her babies a piece of sticky tape. The babies would spend hours pulling the tape off one finger, only to have it stuck on a finger of the other hand, and then back to the first, and so on all afternoon. The game was so fascinating that the babies never became frustrated before they fell asleep in exhaustion.

         The Gita advocates wisdom to establish rapport with the Absolute. Unlike knowledge, which is incrementally developed in a piecemeal fashion, wisdom is instantaneous and wholesale. While it indubitably can grow and change, there is no time when it is not valid. It doesn’t have to reach critical mass to suddenly come on line, and it doesn’t fade out as long as the wise one stays healthy. It isn’t measured in units of any kind, and it should never be thought of as an object of awareness of the wise one. Rather, it is the awareness itself.


13)         Relinquishing by means of the mind all activities, the embodied One sits happily, a victor, in the nine-gated city, neither acting nor causing to act.


         By ‘activities’ here, the Gita means actions generated by the ego or the self. The mantra “I do nothing at all” has just been introduced in verse 8 as a means to relinquish the illusion of agency in favor of the all-knowing power of the Absolute. Believing oneself to be the cause has an inhibiting effect on whatever is already transpiring.

         Now we are given another simple technique, more of an extension of the earlier mantra, where activities are counterbalanced with an intelligent release of the sense of agency. We are to meet every situation with its opposite, if not immediately, at least before the partial notion gets stuck in our mind. If someone calls you a fool, think of how you are wise, and if someone calls you smart, think of how ignorant you really are. If you are called beautiful, think of how fleeting physical beauty is, or how under the skin you are a mass of blood and raw tissue. If people think of you as a nonconformist, ponder how much you resemble everyone else, and vice versa. This is possibly the most central of all yoga techniques, and it brings the practitioner to a happy, victorious state of equipoise within the “nine-gated city” of the body. The nine gates refer either to the nine physical openings (eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, urethra and anus) or the nine chakras, more subtle openings connecting the individual with the whole.

         There is no question of renouncing action, of giving it up completely. Relinquishing is a code word for not having expectations about outcomes, and so not manipulating the process, while continuing to participate to the fullest measure in what comes along.

         At the Gita’s climax, Chapter XI presents an event identical with a psychedelic experience, and insists on proper preparation to optimize it. While all of Krishna’s teachings are germane, the advice here is an essential part of preparing to get the most out of a trip. For the most part, people either take psychedelics for fun or to have a religious experience, in other words, either to generate unusual sensory adventures or ignite insights. Psychedelics stimulate both, and they are not mutually exclusive, but in the aftermath of a trip, a thrill seeker will ignore the insights and dwell on the good feelings, while the seeker of truth will downplay the thrills and cherish the wisdom gained. Needless to say, the Gita’s interest is in the wise use of drugs to further the spiritual quest, rather than as a new form of amusement. To accomplish this, we must relinquish our attachments to trivialities as much as possible and remain in a balanced state, “neither acting nor causing to act.”

         Krishna is hereby summing up the teaching of unitive activity, preparatory to introducing unitive contemplation or meditation in the next chapter. In case there’s some residual doubt about this, take the example of a fetus. All the development happens automatically. The mother may imagine she is causing the child, but she is merely providing the healthiest possible environment for its natural unfoldment to occur. If it was really up to any person to make a child, the result would be more like a sketch or a cartoon than a living being. Our knowledge of the process is and will always remain limited; we must allow that something far beyond our control is engineering the miracle.

         Another example is a farmer, who must intelligently provide water and nutrients to the crops, and yet the plants grow according to their dharma. The most attentive farmer cannot coax a seed to germinate and rise up out of the ground. So we all do what we can, but we inwardly incline before the wonders of That which makes it all possible.


14)         The Supreme does not generate either the idea of agency or activity in regard to the world, nor the union of action and benefit; the innate urge in beings, however, exerts itself.


         The first part means that the idea that we are the doer, that we are the cause of things happening, and even the very idea that things happen, are strictly human concepts. They do not exist in the primeval state of the universe. Nor is there any guarantee that certain actions will produce certain results. Many people get outraged when bad things happen to good people, or the other way around, imagining that this casts doubt on the existence of God. All it casts doubt on is their immature conceptions about how the universe works. Meditating on this verse will help break the fixation on managing life simplistically that we so often bring to our spiritual search.

         Despite a transcendental neutrality on the part of the Absolute, the innate urge in beings asserts itself. What exactly does this mean?

         Variously described as the will to live, the élan vital, life force, and so on, there is a mysterious but palpable forward motion in all living beings. As it takes shape in human life, at least, it creates the idea of agency, the sense of “I am doing this now.” Historically it has generally boiled down to “I am looking for something to eat, or someone to reproduce with.” Additionally the vital urge conceptualizes its environment in terms of cause and effect, which is expressed as the union of action and benefit in the verse. We do something so we will get an expected result. At a higher level of consciousness we think, “Here is what I have to do in order to find food or get laid.” Of course, in modern society this has become highly abstracted, with plenty of additional needs and wants overlaid on the basic survival and reproductive requirements of life.

         The implication here is that the Absolute is veiled in a sense by these cortical processes, which also generate the sense of ego or self. In meditation we can temporarily turn off this complex of innate urges and be much more closely in tune with the Absolute, here referred to as the Supreme because of the mild duality inherent in this idea. The effect of many spiritual practices, including psychedelic experience, is to quiet the cortex to allow awareness to shift to deeper levels of the psyche.

         The Indian view is that the innate urges arise in the depths of our being far beyond conscious awareness, in what are called vasanas and samskaras. Vasanas are like our genetic potentials, and samskaras are the processed memories we use to interpret our world. These arrange our life and shape our awareness, sprouting deep in the unconscious and later on passing before the witnessing eye of consciousness on the way to actualization. For us to take credit for them in our late stage of awareness, we must be ignorant of their source, and we are. It seems to us that we invented them from scratch, but in fact they are almost completely developed by the time we become consciously aware of them. We wrestle with them to force them into line with social strictures and our preferred personal narrative, altering and often damaging them in the process. Their innate perfection is compromised by our ham-handed management. Krishna is asking us to leave the best of them alone, and sit quiet. We have to sublimate the bad ones at some point, but the good ones are already sublime. For now we are learning to participate, not direct. In meditation we should just sit and watch as the innate urges bubble up through our awareness. Later, when we get up to act, we can promote the beneficial ones and withhold reinforcement of the unhelpful ones.

         In a healthy mind our experiences are recorded as memories, and they begin to form definite patterns that shape how we relate to the world around us. One typical example is that if we live in a hostile environment, we become more suspicious than if we are surrounded with love and protection. Samskara is the term for how memories condition our outlook. While often treated as a negative influence because they condition us to habitual trains of thought, samskaras also have a decidedly positive aspect in that they free us from having to reassess every item of experience as if it was completely unprecedented. The positive side of our memories we generally call knowledge, and the negative aspect is named prejudice or ignorance. Samskaras include all of what we have learned, both true and false understanding of useful and harmful information.

         When what we have mentally assimilated is consolidated to an unconscious essence, it becomes a vasana. Depending on your belief system, vasanas are either the seeds of karma you carry between lives, or they are the information encoded in the genes you inherit and pass on to your progeny. No matter what you believe, no one imagines your superficial memories, like how to get to the store, are passed along to the next life, but only a highly refined essence or a useful genetic configuration. Scientists are coming to realize that learning is occasionally genetically encoded and thus also passed on, but we don’t have to determine the exact truth here. The impact is undeniable: a major factor in life is what is glibly called instinct, the pressure of deep-seated urges to shape the lives of all creatures great and small. Instincts are the same as vasanas, emerging from the genetic inheritance or memory bank of life or whatever you want to call it.

         Instinct is a classic example of how by naming something—often derisively—people think they have explained it. Yet nothing could be more mysterious than instinct. No matter how you describe it, it's still a wonder. It appears only those creatures who've schismed into duality (i.e. humans) have lost the knack of living harmoniously and expertly in tune with their instinctive urges. Civilized beings still have instincts, but we are expert at suppressing them. Some would call that progress; others consider it a tragedy.

         Intuition isn’t far removed from instinctive understanding. It comes from listening to our subsurface urges and learning to cope with them. An immense part of our spiritual program is to try to regain that instinctive, intuitive part of our psyche, while retaining whatever is valid in our reflective thought patterns as well. Tricky. And exciting.

         The emergence of vasanas and samskaras is similar to the idea of unconscious material rising to the surface in Western psychology, in that if they are suppressed they cause emotional pain and mental aberrations. Their expression is the very purpose of life, after all. Society, however, prefers that they be stifled in the interests of “keeping the peace” or “maintaining law and order.” Rigid adherents of this attitude can successfully prevent the emergence of their vasanas and samskaras. The end result is a life lived in vain; no spiritual or even psychological progress can take place under these circumstances. Many psychological quirks and bodily diseases have their root in the suppression of natural urges. The throttling of legitimate inner expressions is the ultimate waste of existence, and the ultimate triumph of socialization over individual integrity.

         On the other hand, uncritical identification with our inner urges will certainly lead to problems. We have negative proclivities along with positive ones. We must learn to not be caught by them, otherwise they will continue to be expressed over and over and build up a lot of momentum that interferes with our freedom of choice in activities. Going with the flow is not a completely mindless process, but the mind must be restrained to make room for the flow to be apprehended.


15)         The all-pervading One takes cognizance neither of the sinful nor the meritorious actions of anyone; wisdom is veiled by unwisdom; beings are deluded thereby.


         Krishna now assures his disciple that although his urges may be harshly judged and persecuted by society, the Absolute does not use the same measuring rod, or, for that matter, any measuring rod at all. Everyone has good and bad aspects, and it is largely a matter of luck which side stands out to our peers. What really matters is our relation with the inner truth of existence, which is the core of wisdom. The peeling away of ignorance to attain—or regain—our native wisdom is the defining theme of human spirituality.

         In the case of a global awareness, such as the one described here, there is no room for judgmentalism. There can only be compassion for those who have been trained to favor the veil over the radiant inner source. Focusing on sin is often confused with spirituality, but it is in fact a primary distraction from it.

         Our nature is like the sun in naturally giving off light, but over the course of our development it first gets obscured by dust and dirt, and eventually whole blankets of ignorance accumulate over it to keep it under wraps. Its light, should it shine through the miasma, threatens to reveal the falsehood permeating so-called normal attitudes, so it must be suppressed at all costs in the interest of society. Truth is unafraid to stand naked, but falsehood needs to be artfully dressed up in order to pass muster.

         Good and bad actions comprise the warp and weft of the veiling blanket. Focusing on them means putting our attention on the veil, and favoring one aspect over the other just makes the blanket stronger and more rigid. The Gita’s solution is to stop being mesmerized by the veil and instead attend to the Absolute reality behind it. By strengthening our connection with the light our bonds will be evanesced from the inside out.

         Nataraja Guru reminds us that the classical God of myth is obviated by this fearless attitude:


The theistic context to which sinful or meritorious actions belong is more finally abolished in the first lines here. The pardoning and punishing God of theology… is revalued in the second line in keeping with the idea of pure wisdom in the most general terms. Beings are deluded and thus imagine theological gods who punish and reward, and also imagine that the innermost being is affected one way or another by necessary activity. All such notions are mere suppositions due to the veiling effect of ajnana (ignorance or unknowing). (268)


Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth century European philosopher who was burnt at the stake for heresy, put the same idea very simply: God “makes his sun rise over good and bad.” He himself discovered the downside of this truth at the hands of his Inquisitors, but even a transcendent God finds it impossible to produce a coin with only an up side.


16)         To those, however, in whom that unwisdom in the Self has been destroyed, wisdom shines sunlike as the Ultimate.


         Only if there is a wholesale breakthrough, tearing away the veil, can our inner light again shine forth in all its glory. Partial or murky light means the veil is still in place, only a little bit thinner. The Ultimate is really, really bright.

         The ancients often compared the Absolute to the sun, and the Gita contains a number of solar similes. Near the highest point on the Gita’s arch, XI, 12, narrator Sanjaya gushes, “If the splendor of a thousand suns were to rise together in the sky, that might resemble the splendor of that great Soul.” Narayana Guru’s 35th verse of Atmopadesa Satakam, the One Hundred Verses on Self-Instruction, reads:


Like ten thousand suns coming all at once,

the modulation of discrimination arises;

the veil of transience covering knowledge is maya;

tearing this away, the primal sun alone shines.


         Just as the sun’s energy equally illuminates good and evil and all shades of their overlap, the wisdom of an enlightened being can warm the hearts of everyone who comes in contact with them. Our veiled light seeks irresistibly to bask in revealed light from any known source, in hopes that it will impel our own breakthrough, releasing us from the stygian darkness of our ignorance.


17)         Thus having That for reasoning, That for the Self, That for finalized discipline, That for supreme goal, they go to a state of final non-return, all their (relativistic) dross being canceled out by wisdom.


         The inner light, the sunlike Ultimate, is often simply called That. The relativistic dross is the veiling blanket of ignorance, which is to be evaporated by wisdom. Once our inner light is set free, why on earth would anyone want to put the veil back on? The state of final non-return means we remain affiliated with the Absolute and do not return to our accustomed state of cluelessness. While the claim is often made that “final non-return” means there is no longer any reincarnation for a realized person, the Gita generally avoids such metaphysical speculation. Being reborn as an enlightened being to aid lost souls is extolled in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Therefore, non-return does not mean the end of manifested existence. It just means that wisdom, once gained, cannot be lost again.

         “Having That for reasoning” and all the rest refers to an actual changeover in the mentality of the truth seeker. In early stages they adopt inspiring ideas from their teachers and classes, and ideally these lead them to discover the reality of That within themselves. Once they do, that light becomes the basis of their newly discovered spiritual outlook, not the book learning. They are no longer parroting the words of others, they have become original thinkers in their own right. This is certainly one of the most significant mileposts on the journey, marking the transition from what may be called spiritual childhood to adulthood. The seer no longer needs to look for justification in the collected words of wisdom of humanity, they can see clearly enough to speak from their own unfettered perspective.

         From there it rapidly becomes apparent that they are actually the Absolute. The ancients taught the mantra tat tvam asi, meaning That thou art. Another mantra reminds us that even our I-sense is the Absolute, aham brahma asmi. That the Absolute is the discipline as well as the goal, means that whatever we do is a form of the Absolute trying to come to grips with its own mysterious nature. There is no distant godhead to be reached. It is all right here, now, as much as it ever was there and then.

         Very quickly thereafter all aspects of life and the universe it contains are seen to be the Absolute in fancy clothing, so to speak. It is dressed to the nines in the finery of the world. All actions, which naturally involve disciplines and goals, are seen to be aspects of That alone. In fact, everything is That. Realization means seeing the Absolute everywhere you look, including knowing it is you, or you are it. You realize, along with Sufi Inayat Khan, that “Everything, whatever you see, is nothing else but The Presence of God!” The first and most important corollary of this boundless wisdom is given in the famous verse that follows.


18)         In regard to a Brahmin endowed with learning or humility, a cow, an elephant, and even a dog, as also one who cooks the dog (for food), the well-informed ones see the same (differenceless reality).


         The Brahmin is the highest caste, and the dog eater the lowest, the outcast caste. In the Gita’s time, dogs were considered the vilest of vermin, being scavengers and carriers of disease, and they were even proscribed by the Vedas. To be forced to eat those disgusting, non-vegetarian creatures would be truly an act of desperation. The cow has always stood for simple-mindedness or stupidity, contrasting both with the learned Brahmin and the dignified and elegant elephant. Verse 18 presents a widely divergent panoply of types within the mammal class, that cannot possibly be connected in any way other than via the universal ground of the Absolute.

         When we look at things we usually see their differences, but if we are alive to the Absolute pulsing within everything equally, those differences lose their significance. All become merely different mathematical permutations of a single all-pervasive occasion.

         It goes without saying—or should—that such insight conveys a profound understanding of human nature and a concomitant love and compassion for everyone without exception. There are no evil people to take the blame for our own failings: we are all responsible for dancing the dance we dance.

         The well-informed ones are pundits, and the present definition distinguishes those who really are wise from the modern version, usually pronounced with a sneer, who wrangle endlessly over minute differences of opinion, blowing up subtle distinctions into vast enmities, and never seeing the forest for the trees. One who is alive to sama, sameness or unity, automatically becomes tolerant and compassionate and all the rest of the virtues mentioned throughout the Gita, thus being worthy of the epithet ‘pundit’. Without that awareness, the ordinary inclination of the mind to highlight every perceivable difference in the interest of self-defense becomes all-engrossing. Such people are welcome to their manias, as long as they keep them in bounds, but there is no wisdom involved. Even when taken to an extreme in justifying harsh measures towards ordinary people, such attitudes can never qualify for pundit status.


19)         Even here creative urges are conquered by those whose minds are balanced in sameness; free from blemish and unitively balanced is indeed the Absolute; therefore such persons become grounded in the Absolute.


         We usually think of creativity as a positive feature of life and seek to foster it, but the sense meant here is more negative. The creative urges under consideration are akin to the encumbering desires discussed earlier. We have urges to satisfy our wants. Indulging them puts us on an endless path of wandering in the desert of material values, while curbing them brings us into resonance with the Absolute, which is dynamic and infinitely potent. It also allows us to see the unity equally underlying what we want and what we don’t want, which is the basis of wisdom. The Gita’s outlook is that as long as we see differences, we will have urges to act to adjust those differences, but when we see the common basis we can relax and enjoy life as it is. In this state of general satisfaction we are actually much more effective at having a positive influence on circumstances in which we find ourselves.

         The words “even here” remind us that this verse follows the line of reasoning of the previous one. There the wise were only informed of the differenceless reality, whereas here they move into a living realization described as being “grounded in the Absolute.”

         The word translated as “creative urges” is sargah. Its root meaning is to excrete. Later on it humorously took the sense of a stampede of animals bursting from a pen. Later still, and probably as an even more humorous analogy, it came to mean creation, or creative urges. This implies that what we are to curb and conquer are the excretions that burst from us, the blabbering and basically stupid reactions we have to encroachment on our territory. In modern terms the Gita might be saying “stop hurling crap around.”

         This verse is often taken to mean we should suppress our vasanas, which would curtail the healthy expression of our dharma. It should be quite clear by now that this is not the Gita’s intention. Here we see only that a calm inner life undermines the tendency to blurt out ugly proclamations.

         Humans are filled with literally zillions of vasanas, the seeds of former experiences that are aching to sprout and express themselves. It may be that we have spent many lifetimes developing our artistic ability, or our talent for loving relationships, our acumen as a therapist, whatever. If you don’t like the idea of reincarnation, you can call it genetic propensity inherited from your forebears. Either way, we enter the world to express and even further develop those traits. We go through the long process of being born and growing up, and just when we’re ripe to begin expressing those talents once again, the weight of our learned misunderstandings forces us to hide out, withdraw, pull back. Even the Gita may be cited as a suppressive authority, by those of unripe understanding. From our social training we become experts at squelching ourselves, but inside those seeds are churning, now hopping mad, like Mexican jumping beans in a hot skillet. “Get on with it! We’ve been sitting here too long already!” they shout. The clash between our urges and our inhibitions makes us feel impotent. Frustrated. After awhile the shouts die down, or else we close our ears to them. We have become “mature.” Social maturity means taking over the business of suppressing ourselves from outside agencies. If we become mature enough, we can be truly miserable. This state is often called depression.

         Imagine how vasanas must feel when they eagerly await expression over the long course of a person’s life, only to realize that the one they inhabit isn’t going to give them a chance. They’ll go to any lengths to pressure their caretaker to bring them to life. Bound up and hopeless, it is no wonder they produce depression and psychosis, fury, rage, the whole range of tactics to instill motivation.

         If we are lucky to get proper instruction or some other kick in the pants, or maybe through some miracle we suddenly begin to heed those inner cries for expression, we may begin to “become ourselves” once again. Meaning we begin to nurture those healthy, positive vasanas, letting them sprout and begin to grow. They grow fast, because they are the seeds of great things, complex things. They already have eons of development crammed into their compact forms. We are all geniuses at heart. And as we find outlets to express these latent talents, our enjoyment of life naturally increases. This is the true meaning of living our dharma while being grounded in the Absolute.


20)         He should not rejoice on good befalling him nor be disturbed by a mishap; stabilized in reason, delusion-free, as knower of the Absolute, firmly established is he in the Absolute.


         This is easy to say and hard to do. When we are rocked by the impact of events, either positive or negative, we cannot help but react to them. In the midst of the turmoil, we have to call on our reason to bring stability. It helps a lot if we have practiced this in advance: holding on to reason within a confused state of mind is notoriously difficult. And we’re talking about enlightened reason that links the thinker with the Absolute, which is a far cry from the cold, dry reasoning of a mediocre mentality.

         Delusion is mentioned because when we are upset we release pent-up energy by projecting all sorts of imaginary intentions on whatever caused our discomfort. We are likely to blame whoever comes in handy. While we may never know the actual cause of our anguish, we are perfectly content to attribute it to the hostility of some inimical group or person, real or imaginary. Barring a convenient scapegoat, our mind hops from one fantasy to the next, hoping to hit on a narrative that satisfies it. Of course, bigotry and evasion are never satisfactory to a yogi. Only when the mind becomes calm by regaining a global or unitive perspective do the delusions subside.

         The ancient poets spoke of that state wherein we regain our stability as knowing the Absolute or becoming firmly established in it. In fact, we are the Absolute to begin with. It isn’t anything bizarre and extraordinary, just our normal condition, so if we understand correctly we are already established in it. The restoration of this balance is what Nataraja Guru means by renormalization. We start out normal, develop abnormalities, and then relinquish them through an effort of renormalization. If we were wise enough we might have avoided the abnormalities to begin with, but usually we aren’t. Mostly we don’t even notice them until they have become a cherished part of us. We most certainly should not cling onto our abnormalities once we do become aware of them, but often—like the proverbial drowning man grasping at straws—we do. We take our quirks as defining us and identify with them, instead of recognizing the vast restorative potential they rest upon.

         A yogi sees how their superficial identity continually meets with good and bad encounters, but remains grounded in an unshakable state beyond their reach. This is commonly called detachment, and is not achieved by tuning out events, but by subsuming them in a continuous, absorbing relationship with the Absolute. Detachment at its best is simultaneously involved and unaffected. More on detachment can be found at III, 19 and XIII, 8, as well as throughout this chapter.

         We readily understand how we can be disturbed by mishaps, but it is harder to see how the things we welcome can throw us off too. Three examples leap to mind. They are somewhat simplistic, but may be used as an entrée to pondering more realistic situations.

         People who are physically beautiful are admired by everyone and complimented and deferred to, yet they very often are treated more as objects than as living human beings. They grow up getting a lot of attention, but for how they look instead of who they are inside. It’s hard for them not to buy into all the praise and identify with their appearance. They can easily come to believe they are special and better than others, and so live in a fantasy world that only falls apart when age tarnishes their good looks or they realize that many of their friends are phonies. This pattern also holds true for anyone who has a notable talent early in life. It’s very hard to distinguish true admirers from ingratiating exploiters, and consequently we play to the crowd instead of seeking out and finding ourselves. The longer this goes on the harder the withdrawal symptoms are when the accolades diminish.

         Secondly, America now has a gambling-based economy, with lotteries everywhere. There are plenty of dark tales of those who instantly won vast amounts of money and then met with disaster because of it. Even if they didn’t lose control of themselves in spending sprees, greedy people hounded them mercilessly, driving them to unhappiness. No one wants to be loved for their bank account, so they became suspicious of even their genuine friends. The instant fortune that seemed so much like salvation often turned out to be a curse instead.

         The same boom or bust economy is also geared to making vast sums off music and sports stars, who often experience sudden fame and fortune if they are lucky enough to “make the team” or “top the charts.” Just what every young person thinks they want, and strives mightily for. But once they hit the big time, the disconnect between who they are and who they’re imagined to be by their admirers is a serious shock. If they are unsure of who they are, many of them burn out after a short while, get into addictive drugs or become mentally unbalanced. The popular media then loves to ridicule them, adding insult to injury and furthering their misery. Seeing the mighty brought low is a favorite pastime of those who already feel low themselves.

         In all these examples, if the people who experienced the good fortune had been able to stay calm and centered, and realized that they should remain steady in their core rather than gloat over their good luck, they could have avoided the crash that followed. Gloating is what is popularly called egotism. It’s the identification with the outside factors per se that brings the turbulence. What goes up must come down, at least where gravity is in operation. Dynamic steadiness through yoga is the real triumph.


21)         That (same) joy which is felt by one in his own Self when he is unattached to outer contacts (such as touch), he whose Self has established unity with the Absolute experiences never-decreasingly.


         This and the following verse form a matched pair, viewed from opposite perspectives. They comprise an elaboration, now including the joy aspect, of II, 59: “Objective interests revert without the relish for them on starving the embodied of them. Even the residual relish reverts on the One Beyond being sighted.” Some seekers spend a lot of effort to subtract all sensory involvement with the world they live in. The Gita realizes that this is an endless struggle, like washing the lather out of soap in Narayana Guru’s expression. But as the Absolute becomes a living reality, its joyful attraction easily draws the attention inward. Seekers must seek this living truth, rather than spending inordinate amounts of time denying themselves their pleasures.

         It’s a fact of the mind that what we dwell on is what we become. If we fixate on repelling the devil in the form of sense contacts (or any other form), we wind up spending all our time with the devil. Moreover, our chagrin at being more involved with what we are trying to transcend than transcendence itself can cause us to come apart at the seams. Our psyche splits along angel/devil lines, and we find ourself at war with ourself. We desperately want to be identified with the “good” side, and so hide our “bad” side from the light of day. What’s worse, we live in a world of fellow beings mounting the same charade. No wonder there is massive confusion on this battlefield of Dharmakshetra!

         For some, the denial itself may become the goal, rather than the attainment of Self Realization. They wind up bitter and negative, and some even vehemently punitive, while imagining they are being pure as the driven snow. All sorts of mental aberrations spring from the rejection of sensory stimuli. Chapter III made it abundantly clear that forcible suppression of action, which includes engagement with the senses, is doomed to failure. We are instead directed to discover the core of absolute harmony within every occasion. It isn’t the pleasure per se that is the goal, it is the profound satisfaction that can be drawn from simply being present.


         This verse reminds us that our natural state is blissful, and the bliss comes from alignment with the Absolute. The supremely satisfying bliss is the spark of the Absolute within us. This is extremely exciting news. The words sound a bit dry and detached, but the meaning is that our human potential is to be drenched in bliss all the time. We lose touch with our native joy when we become attracted to the flickering of sensory attractions and treat them as more important than our core, but all that is needed to regain it is to put sensory input in its proper place. It is an important source of information, but it is decidedly peripheral to our state of being. We have become deluded that the quality of the sensory input causes our state of mind, and because of our delusion, it often does. If we ever want to free ourselves from the chaos imbued by the world around us, all we have to do is turn back to our essence and tremendous joy is there waiting for us.

         This is one of those verses that if read right, should make our hearts leap with joy. Sure, we must keep our cool, but we will no longer feel the craving to find substitute pleasures for the rock solid basis of our being. It’s not only good enough, it’s fantastic!


22)         Those contact-born pleasures indeed are the sources of pain, having a beginning and an end, Arjuna; the wise man does not take pleasure in them.


         Of course, a primary reason to not hitch our hopes to temporary pleasures is that they don’t last. Whatever joy we obtain from the presence of something is automatically compensated for in exactly equal measure when it is absent. Most of us learn to swallow our disappointment, but that only makes it go into our innards, where it causes all sorts of indigestion. However, if we can find joy in life as a whole, then presence and absence are only a kind of vibratory background to something that never goes away.

         The last phrase of the verse presents a subtle paradox. When we eat a delicious meal or pause with our friends to watch a beautiful sunset, our spirits are uplifted. We go to a music concert to get “charged up.” Sensory input stimulates our inner neural evolution and we experience it as happiness. Voluntarily restraining ourselves from sensory enjoyment, without some compensatory interest, deadens our awareness and produces vacuity. The intent here is only that we don’t become dependent on certain stimuli for our sense of well-being, not that we cut off all experience, as is sometimes supposed.

         In Vedanta, pleasure and happiness are to be clearly differentiated. As we have said before, the Gita should not be read as advising us to not enjoy what we do. That would be absurd. Of course, it’s a commonly held absurd belief. The key is to realize that the outer manifestation is not the source of happiness. Our true nature is happiness. Bliss. Ananda. Enjoyable activities reflect this bliss, actualizing our potential, but are not its cause. Once we know that the Absolute within is the source of our experience, everything becomes enjoyable. Either a situation is enjoyable in itself, or it presents an enjoyable problem to be resolved. We don’t have to seek specific events in order to be happy, we are happy and we encounter specific events. But without these events, without some sort of interaction with the world, it is much harder to see that we are blissful. Our happiness remains dormant, invisible. If we wonder about it, as we must, society gently suggests that we are in fact depressed and sad and in need of an expensive cure, and we might go along with its directive if we didn’t know better. This issue will be addressed in detail in Chapter XII.

         Instructed by teachings with a similar face value to this one, millions of seekers have struggled to keep from enjoying the world they live in. What a tragic loss, both for them and for their friends and families! Instead, they should be struggling to release their inner bliss, to flood their world with happiness. This doesn’t require any magic show or great performance, only their awakened presence, their loving contact with those around them. As Paramahansa Yogananda put it, “A saint who is sad is a sad saint.” We must remember that the Gita’s spirit advises us to not take displeasure in our contacts any more than we should take pleasure in them. Pleasure and displeasure are a polar pair to be resolved by a yogic attitude of transcendental synthesis.

         If we are engaged in a learning process throughout our life, then realization is a more or less natural outgrowth of it. Early in life we are thrilled by sensory stimuli and exploration. As we age, intellectual matters become increasingly absorbing and delightful. The more we move toward engagement in abstract thought, the more our concern with sensory stimuli fades into the background. Most of us don’t abandon our youthful exuberance completely, but its relative importance diminishes. It’s too bad that our overarching modern paradigm doesn’t particularly honor wisdom, emphasizing instead the wealth-producing value of outward activity related to the senses. When you can no longer be shaken down for a buck, you are consigned to the ash heap. Yet that is the stage of life when deep contemplation and attunement with the Absolute comes most easily.


23)         He who is able to experience undisturbed here itself before liberation from the body, that impulse arising out of desire and hatred—he is the unified and happy man.


         We don’t have to die to become stabilized in wisdom—we are instructed to attain to the heights here and now. Simple enough. But experiencing the impulse arising out of desire and anger or hatred without getting upset is a much taller order. The word translated as “experience undisturbed,” sodham, means to endure, bear, tolerate or suffer something. The idea is that whether we are wise or foolish, we continue to experience visceral reactions to the things that happen to us. The body is made to do this: that’s how it works, so there is nothing wrong with it. However, the uninstructed person is likely to be carried along by their reactions and pursue a course of reactionary action, while the “unified and happy one” bears it with equanimity, not reacting unless it is the wise course. Putting Krishna’s suggestion into practice is a major feature of a spiritual—or simply a decent—life. Our gut reactions are not necessarily grounded in wisdom, they may well be grounded in the ego, and only seem imperative. We have to examine our impulses from a more profound perspective in order to distinguish between wisdom and folly.

         This runs contrary to some spiritual notions, those that urge us act on impulse or blurt out the first thing that pops into our head. If we are overly inhibited this can be a corrective technique, and in many cases relaxing our inhibitions does promote expression of valuable insights. The point here, though, is that some inner urges are selfish and detrimental, and knowing the difference between them and genuine inspiration is a key factor in acting with expertise. We want to de-energize the bad impulses, arising from desire and hatred, while promoting the altruistic and creative ones. Faced with such a subtle and difficult task, especially during childhood, the default setting humans tend to adopt is to shut off all the impulses, just to be sure nothing inappropriate comes through. Most of us are also taught that impulsive behavior is a no-no. This is really tragic, killing the spirit, as it were. We should be trained to distinguish between our noble and ignoble impulses, and treat them differently, instead of lumping all personal feelings into the unacceptable category.

         Desire can be thought of as being inwardly directed, aimed at our own feelings, while hatred is generally directed outward. When the outgoing and ingoing tendencies of the psyche are brought to neutrality, one experiences the total context all at once. It is like the ocean. Water evaporates out and rain falls back in, but the ocean remains constant throughout. We are learning to increasingly identify with the oceanic aspect of life, and let the drops fall where they may….

         The wording of the last phrase of the verse is quite casual, more like “unified and happy fellow.” Krishna is making a very informal statement, indicating that holiness or any other type of specialness is not required. Everybody can and should follow this advice all the time, since it’s so essential and helpful.


24)         He of inward happiness, whose inner life is free and easy, and likewise of inward brilliance—he of unitive understanding, having become the Absolute, enters the self-effacement of the Absolute.


         The next three verses mention brahma nirvana, self-effacement of or in the Absolute. Nirvana, the well-known goal of Buddhism and Jainism, has many shades of meaning. The idea here is most like the metaphor of a drop of water falling into the ocean: it doesn’t exactly disappear, but it expands to the point that it is not recognizable as a distinct entity any more. Before and after, the ocean and the drop are both forms of water, which symbolizes the Absolute. The transformation is simply the appearance of different forms of a universal substance.

         The verses leading up to this section add profundity to the perhaps overly simplified image of raindrop and ocean. Achieving the poised state of a wise contemplative who distinguishes between valuable and detrimental impulses, we then are easily absorbed into the state of being in the Absolute. Some of us can simply let go and dissolve; most of us have to work at it intelligently, because we harbor many blockages to emancipation in our wiring. The latter choice is by far the safer route for the majority, as the abundance of lost souls wandering in a daze along the highways so eloquently attests. Before and after our periods of absorption we should retain consideration of our practical needs so that they will provide a healthy platform for self-effacement.

         If we use psychedelics to do the heavy lifting for us and give us a free and easy glimpse of the unconditioned—or less conditioned—state, we might think we can just let go and all our needs will be taken care of by some mysterious entity. This is an unwarranted assumption. The Gita teaches that the awareness gained from such experiences, helping to make us brilliant and happy, is to be brought to bear by us on the way we live. A well-harmonized life is to be shared with everyone and supported by our active contribution to the general well-being. Psychedelic experience only feels like heaven; it nonetheless always takes place on solid earth.

         Verses like this are benchmarks for us to measure our understanding. If we imagine that we are being taught to disappear, go away, be somewhere else, or that we are supposed to bottle up our very nature, we are missing the point. We must realize that if we become bitter, vengeful, repressed and so on, we aren’t following the Gita’s advice correctly. There are plenty of grim and tragic events already, so we don’t need to add to the pile. Understand the teaching properly, we will most assuredly feel ecstatically happy and filled with light, and our inner life will be free and easy. Never hard and driven. No anxiety or scheming. Free and easy. What a beautiful state of mind to aspire to!

         Here and there the Gita may sometimes sound exclusive and judgmental, due to translation problems and the changing meanings of words over time, not to mention the misconceptions we bring to the study. If it strikes us that way, we should remind ourselves that its aim is to teach freedom, and reexamine our interpretation from that angle. First and foremost, the Gita is a textbook on freedom.


25)         Seers, their evils weakened, cutting themselves away from conflicting pairs of interests, who are self-controlled, who are ever kindly disposed to all beings, attain to self-effacement in the Absolute.


         The effort involved in detaching ourselves from “conflicting pairs of opposites” is addressed throughout the Gita, being the key element that distinguishes yoga from pure nondualism, but the mention of kindness is new. Nataraja Guru found it puzzling, since he thought of it more as a secondary, almost religious value. The dictionary defines the word used for kindness, ratah, in part as “pleased, amused, gratified, delighting in, enamored of, devoted to.” It goes as far as using the rare word love, and even reveals a sexual overtone in more modern usage. So we get the sense here that enlightened seers experience great enjoyment in relation to the beings they encounter, and may participate in actions leading to increased happiness all around. Being alive, fully alive, is fun. The same phrase occurs again in XII, 4, where Nataraja Guru renders it “interested in the well-being of all creatures.” We should always keep in mind it is a kindly interest.

         The confusion is dispelled if we realize that kindness is not a required state of mind to be cultivated, it is a natural outgrowth of merging into the Absolute. When you know for certain that all beings share the same essence as you, they are as close to you as your parents and your children. The experience of commonality can be called love, among other things. In a state of love, acting with kindness becomes the natural background at all times and in all circumstances.

         Sometimes being kind requires us to be tough. When our fellow beings are screwing up, which is common enough, we sometimes have to resist them to prevent further harm to them and others. Arjuna will have to go as far as to fight a war, because the situation demands it for the restoration of fairness and balance. We may be called upon to stand up to a bully or cage a mad dog. But the core motivation at all times must be loving kindness.

         We might have to be tough with ourself as well, if we are going astray, though we must be kindly and patient about it. Self-hatred is never helpful! But self-control is mentioned frequently in the Gita. Yoga differs from Advaita, nondualism, in that it admits to a provisional duality in an essentially nondual universe. We think and perceive in terms of duality. Therefore there is much to be done to train the mind to rediscover its innate unity. Yoga requires effort, but it is to be intelligently directed and open to the inner pulse of the Absolute. Effort based on scheming for selfish ends is another matter altogether, and utterly foreign to the spirit of the work. Nor does the Gita share the slipshod view of spirituality as a kind of lazy, carefree, eternal vacation. We are to be engaged and alert, and in so doing we make life interesting and delightful.

         An excellent model for the Gita’s type of intelligent self-control is sailing a sailboat. Cruising in one, you cannot force matters; sailboats are entirely subject to available winds. Yet if you allow your craft to drift aimlessly, you get nowhere. The boat must be kept in order: sails trimmed correctly, hand on the rudder, keen eye out for obstacles, everything shipshape. But it is the wind that propels the boat. You cannot push it, but you can guide it in concert with the breezes, making constant adjustments as the winds change. Plus, there are trade winds that blow most of the time as well as dead zones with nary a puff. You should aim your boat to take advantage of the steady blasts and avoid the doldrums. Self-control is thus not a repressive but an expressive activity.

         Like a sailboat steering clear of storms and reefs to find a safe passage, when we “cut away” from conflict, we allow ourselves to enter in to the self-effacement of the Absolute. A wise yogi should not forget that self-expression divorced from connection with the absolute Ground does not satisfy, and is not much different than the failure to express anything. Raw talent alone is insufficient. Talent combined with humble connectivity will carry us safely to our home port. The mystical connection with the Absolute makes all paths bright, while the same ways remain dark without it. As Nataraja Guru put it so beautifully, “The breeze of a fresh life enlivens the ways of a yogi.”


26)         To those disjoined from desire and anger, those self-controlled ones whose vital consciousness is subdued, (who are also) knowers of the Self, self-effacement in the Absolute lies near at hand.


         The phrase “near at hand,” echoes the assurance of verse 6 that one unitively harmonized attains the Absolute without delay. In this middle stage of spiritual development, there is a lot of effort and subtle discrimination to be exercised on a consistent basis, not only in meditation but out and about in daily activity. A seeker might lose heart if nothing seems to change despite all the hard work. So the guru may give a modest amount of encouragement, assuring the disciple that the Absolute is nearer than the nearest, even though it may seem hopelessly remote at times.

         The Upanishads are firm that That is closer than the closest, but they also acknowledge that it is farther than the farthest. It is exceedingly far because however it might be described or conceived, it is always beyond any possible definition. Moreover, it is not accessible via a series of cumulative steps, so it will appear to infinitely recede if it is sought in that way. Still, viewing the Absolute as impossibly far off helps counteract the spiritual ego, just as knowing it is close by buoys up a flagging spirit, and both have their place.

         Breaking the hold of desire and anger on us is of course a main theme of spiritual life—or simple maturity for that matter. Practically speaking, it is helpful to realize that anger is largely a chemical reaction to stress or attack. The minute we react to an assault, our system is flooded with toxic chemicals that make us miserable and can even shorten our life. They definitely reduce our enjoyment of living. Therefore we should do our best to throttle the impulse to become enraged by other people’s faults and provocations. Once we let go of the way of thinking that maintains the anger, the chemicals are fairly quickly metabolized and we again become calm. We can still maintain our guard if it is needed, but we will not be carried away by harmful emotions.

         A major triumph for hate-mongers is that they have poisoned you, often without even knowing you or being anywhere near you. Don't let them have their smug satisfaction! Sure, we could list ten thousand reasons they deserve to be tied to a stake and eaten by ants, etc. but thoughts like that only amplify the poisons in our system. The best response—and it's not easy—is to step back enough so that you don't squirt the juice out of your adrenal glands in the first place. There have always been vicious, vile, barbaric humans around, and there likely always will. They have always caused great harm to others. It's part of the scenery here on Earth. But you are really charged with curing yourself first. At least that might actually succeed some day. Saturating yourself in calmness and deep understanding provides a significant buffer against self-generated hormonal toxins.

         Our best defense against anger is to evolve and help others to evolve so that we no longer need to cause harm, outwardly or inwardly. This is a lifelong endeavor, essential and engrossing. At most it will have a modest impact on our surroundings, but beneath the radar the cumulative impact can be tremendous. And we are by no means alone in this effort! There are many fine souls engaged in similar evolutionary programs.

         The second level of self-defense is to forgive even the most execrable and obnoxious folks, by trying to imagine what would drive them to be so filled with venom. Verse 36 in the last chapter assured us that everyone has an unlimited potential that can be unleashed by wisdom. We all fall short of our potential, often dramatically, and we can either be helpers or hinderers for our fellows as well as for ourselves.

         A compassionate person recognizes the harsh obstacles that have damaged the spirits of nearly everyone around them. Leaving aside the manifold insults of adulthood, there are many kinds of abuse and neglect that kids routinely suffer. For instance, some popular religions actually encourage child beating for their “moral instruction,” which is guaranteed to produce timorous souls whose only motivation in life is to avoid the next blow. In the wrong personality, compensation for this oppression will frequently be highly distressing and occasionally take explosively lethal form.

         Poverty is tough enough on children, but even among the privileged elite, parents are often alcoholic, dad is away at work, mom is AWOL somewhere else, and a bright little girl or boy is cared for not at all. Their thwarted egos escalate tactics to draw attention to themselves, naturally enough, eventually even to the point of suicide or homicide in some cases. At least shouting insults at good-hearted people is less devastating than that, so we should be grateful if being chronically ignored only causes incivility.

         There are plenty of other scenarios that make kids grow up stressed out and poorly equipped for adulthood. Not surprisingly, then, the world is brimming with deranged humans. I just wonder why so many people are enchanted by mentally unstable people like that—seems like the crazier you are, the more enthusiastic your following, particularly in the political and entertainment fields. These too are cries for recognition and respect, but we should be very careful to give our attention only in ways that will have a positive effect. Cheering on screwballs just encourages them to become even screwier.

         When the Gita advises dissociating from the context of suffering, it includes not allowing yourself to be drawn into reacting to toxic situations and the venomous humanoids who perpetrate them. And if you really want to cure yourself, you need to also look into why you get so upset at times. There is a personal element in your own upbringing that needs to be brought into conscious awareness. Left unexamined, it will generate plenty of chaos for you.

         At any point, a serious investment of love and attention has a high likelihood of turning the tables back to sanity. Love is what we crave, and what we so keenly miss when it is absent in our world. True love is the one desire we should ardently cultivate, and which is overgrown by all the petty desires we call upon in its absence.


27 & 28) Having peripherally discarded outward factors (such as touch), and also with eyes fixed between the eyebrows, equalizing the positive and negative vital tendencies moving within the nasal orifice,

with the senses, mind and reason controlled, the silent recluse, wholly intent on liberation, with desire, fear and anger gone, is ever himself, the liberated one.


         It looks like Vyasa might have won an ancient contest to see who could epitomize meditation in the fewest possible words. This brief yet cogent summary will be expanded on in the next chapter, but it will be valuable to examine it carefully right now.

         The outward factors to be “peripherally discarded,” not only include the senses, as mentioned in verses 21 and 22, but also transactional mental factors such as plans, programs, appointments, wishes, regrets, and so on. One should set all such considerations aside and attend as completely as possible to the meditation. Merely following a set of steps while thinking of other matters is futile, and for this reason an open, non-programmed approach to meditation is favored here. Prescribed paths may be attractive for awhile, but they quickly become routine and the transformative energy ebbs out of them. The inner motivation for them is converted by the mind into a static outward factor, like a rule. Being here now, in its fullest sense, is all that’s required.

         As a corollary, keep a sharp lookout for what brings you out of your seat at the end of your meditation. Any “outward factor” that seems more important than sitting peacefully may have an undue hold on you, and needs to be addressed. You are looking not for the ostensible motivation, but for the inner urge that masquerades as a superficial motive.

         Fixing the inner gaze at a point near the base of the nose, between the eyebrows, concentrates and focuses one’s mental energy. This is the ajna or sixth chakra, associated with consciousness and wisdom. Whatever your beliefs about chakras or synergic centers, collecting the mind and directing it away from the endless kaleidoscope of sensory inputs charges one’s intellectual batteries.

         The positive and negative vital tendencies are the pranas, associated with breath, and sometimes curbed or harmonized by arcane practices known as pranayama. Pranayama unleashes a lot of power, and normally needs to be guided by a trained seer or guru. But the Gita presents us with a safe yogic alternative. If we simply equalize and regularize the breath, we can achieve the proper state of calmness for intense meditation. A calm mind makes for regular breathing, and curiously the reverse is true: regular breathing calms the mind. Watching the breath is therefore an excellent way to begin one’s meditation.

         As a firefighter I responded to hundreds of car wrecks, from minor to extremely serious. Those who were ambulatory or had minor injuries were almost always gasping for air and breathing shallowly and irregularly. I suggested to many of them to breathe deeply and evenly, and if they were able to do it you could actually see them rapidly calm down. Those who were too upset couldn’t keep their breath in mind for two seconds, but those with better self-control improved their state of mind dramatically. I suppose that from the perspective of the meditative state, our transactional life is like an ongoing low-grade car wreck.

         The senses, mind and reason are mentioned together in III, 40-43, and examined in detail there. As far as meditation goes, they are the three main aspects of the individual subject to awareness and control. They dominate consciousness in ordinary life, and need to be set aside in order to explore the deeper regions of the psyche.

         Desire, fear and anger made their earlier appearances in II, 56 and IV, 10. They are the primary emotional categories, and as such are a subset of mind. It is an excellent meditation to sort out the essence of one’s emotions into their primal states, bringing them out of hiding and into the open so to speak. Like the vast panoply of hues that consist of different percentages of the three primary colors, many emotions can be discerned as varying admixtures of the three primary emotions. For instance jealousy can be understood as a combination of envy (a type of desire) impelled by anger. Sadness and depression are grades of thwarted desire enhanced by fear. The teaching here helps us to look beneath the surface of our feelings to their underlying motivations. As already noted, fear and anger represent ingoing and outgoing surges of psychic projection respectively, and desire is the upwelling from the depths of genetically or historically conditioned impulses. All these have to be put to rest to achieve the stillness conducive to a penetrating meditation.

         Krishna describes the sincere seeker as a silent recluse, a muni. What is the point of silence to a spiritual aspirant? It’s lauded in many traditions, but why? Does it serve any purpose?

         Very often our speech becomes a habitual form of maintaining superficiality. In the way that many modern people like to leave the TV or radio droning in the background as a kind of defense against their fears of emptiness, others talk constantly in order to fend off the unnerving subversion of quiet. They fear they don’t exist except as their outward appearance, and so have to continuously construct an image for all the world to admire.

         From silence arises the hum of the universe, the anti-sound of Aum. It threatens to dissolve the ego’s identity in the oceanic state. In response, the ego keeps talking to ratify the fiction of its false (in the sense of temporary) sense of separateness. It’s as if we can prop up the ghost of who we imagine we are by asserting it over and over in words. And that is exactly why seekers of truth remain silent much of the time. One of the very first disciplines is to stop reinforcing what is false and listen for what is true. Since the Absolute cannot be described in words, perhaps it should be sought for in silence.

         It’s a very common experience on silent retreats that initially there is a big effort to stop the habit of talking, but after awhile it becomes such a relief you wonder why you never took a vacation from it before. The mind gathers power as it centers itself and isn’t pulled in multitudinous directions by chatter. The more you reflect, the less you feel the urge to offer an opinion on everything, and the more cogent what you have to say will be. Often the retreat will effect a permanent change in how you relate to the world. And since the world is reciprocal, as what you say becomes more meaningful, superficial people will tend to avoid you and you will be drawn more and more into the company of others who have become free of the compulsion to fill the void with their prating.

         Seekers sometimes begin their quest imagining all sorts of amazing powers and abilities that they will attain later on. And religions often capitalize on their naïveté by promising the same, either here or hereafter. In this chapter the Gita makes it plain that realization is a very simple thing. When you gather yourself together and achieve dynamic mental balance, intensely focused on liberation, you are already there. Imaginary future states are not part of the deal.


29)         Having known Me as the Enjoyer of ritual sacrifices, the Acceptor of austerities, the great Lord of all worlds, and the Friend of all beings, one reaches peace.


         In the midst of all this advice and instruction on how to meditate, Krishna reminds Arjuna that the Absolute is the hub around which all spiritual actions turn. We must avoid the deadly spiritual ego at all cost. Always referring one’s actions to a universal context steers one clear of an inflated sense of self-importance.

         Why do we perform sacrifices? Not to advance our own program, but to extend the delight inherent in all creation. Remember, sacrifice means to make sacred, to realize a connection with the cosmic energy underlying all things. Why do we discipline ourselves? Not to shape us into more holy creatures, but to actualize underutilized potentials of the “holiness” or vast talent latent within us. We undergo discipline to wean ourselves away from necessity and toward freedom. Sacrifice and austerity—unitive knowledge and action—along with opening ourselves to full participation, are the key aspects of a spiritual path. When we stop imagining ourselves as lone pilgrims struggling against overwhelming odds, and instead see our whole milieu as an expression of the wonder of life, it brings a lightness to our steps and a radiance to our hearts.

         The Lord of all worlds stands for the transcendental aspect of truth, and the Friend of all beings is by contrast its immanent aspect. Dialectically combining the immanent and the transcendent results in the synthesis of all-pervading peace.


         This verse, often read as trivial or theistic, is a crucial realization at this middle stage of spiritual development. It is easy to imagine that the psychic abilities and enhanced awareness and understanding that come to us are products of our own efforts. After all, that is the ordinary view of how the world works, and the provisional paradigm under which we most likely have been laboring. But what we are in fact realizing in our meditations and contemplations is the divinely cosmic nature of the whole game as it really is. It is very humbling to see that everything we learn is an already existing truth, and not just a personal triumph. Like the discovery of electricity, it is by no means our own invention, though it enables our own inventiveness and creativity to flower. The Absolute is always waiting for us to know it better and bring its light into our surroundings.

Scott Teitsworth