Awaken: Swami Satchidananda, I first want to thank you for spending this time with me and for so graciously and generously sharing your wisdom with our awakened readers.
I love that our readers have all come from different religious and spiritual backgrounds, all of which have something beautiful to share. With this in mind, I would like to start with a question about that… Is there a common thread to all spiritual, or religious teachings? If so, what would that be?
Swami Satchidananda: If you want to summarize the essence of all religious teachings, and put it in one word, that word is: selflessness. Be dedicated. Sacrifice is the law of life. What does the cross teach us? Sacrifice.
Awaken: What about our own pursuit of happiness?
Swami: You know that, by being selfless, you will always retain your happiness. A selfish person can never be happy. Know that. This is the fundamental teaching of all the religions and of Yoga… you are selfless because you don’t want to disturb your peace… I say, the selfless person is the most selfish person.
Awaken: So, what you are saying, is that by learning to sacrifice, we end up happier? Could you say more about what you mean by sacrifice?
Swami: What does a flower teach us? Sacrifice. The tree sacrifices its flower to produce a fruit; the candle burns itself away to give us light. There is sacrifice everywhere. The entire nature demonstrates the benefit of sacrifice.
Look at the apple tree. It gives us thousands of fruits. If you ask,
“How many fruits did you give this season?”
“Oh, several thousands.”
“Ah, did people come and beg you for them?”
“No, I don’t wait for that. I just give.”
“Without their even asking?”
“Yes. That’s my nature. I find it a joy to give that way.”
“Suppose nobody comes to take them?”
“That’s their business. I don’t want to eat my own fruit, so I just drop it.”
“But your apples are so delicious. Don’t you at least try one?”
If you have the ears to hear, you will hear the tree laughing at you.
Awaken: Yes, I see what you are saying… By giving without worrying about what’s in it for ourselves, we make things so much simpler in the sense that happiness is easier to achieve. We want less, and we take greater joy at making others happy. I guess this is the true and simplest description of the spirit of Karma Yoga! We end up multiplying our happiness, both by needing less, and by serving others… and without discrimination or calculations, as to whether or not someone deserves it…
Swami: The tree will tell you this. It not only gives its fruit to those who praise it, but even to those who stone it. Throw a stone at an apple tree and you’ll get even more fruits. Throw a stone at a person and you know what you’ll get! So who is greater, the apple or the human tree? When I walk around and see an apple tree, I feel humbled.
Awaken: This reminds me of another old Yogic tale that I once heard… and I don’t remember where I heard it, about the Yogi, who continues to pull the scorpion out of the water, even though every time he rescues it by pulling it out of the water, he gets bitten…
Swami: Ask for nothing; just serve. Don’t expect anything.… That way you will retain your peace, because peace is always in you; it’s not something that comes from the outside. As long as you don’t disturb it by your expectations and anxieties, it will be there.
Awaken: You are emphasizing that the expectations we place on our actions is what sets us up for disappointment, and gradually chips away at our inner peace and happiness?
Swami: If you make an appointment for some result, you must be ready to face disappointment.
Awaken: Living life without any desire for reward or recognition is a practice in its own right because it requires a fair amount of discipline. In my experience, Yoga is what nurtures this kind of discipline. Of course, I am talking about Yoga as a practice, not just as a philosophical concept.
Swami: Keep the mind clean, the body clean, the life well disciplined, the heart dedicated. This is Yoga.
Awaken: But the word “discipline” sounds so constricting and restricting!
Swami: Many people fear that discipline means a lack of freedom, a repressed or joyless life. Without discipline over our mind, where is the joy? With that control, you can enjoy anything you want. Nothing is dangerous to you then.
Awaken: Are you are talking about control over our habit patterns… what the Yogis call samskaras? Which all goes back to controlling our mental whims…
Swami: If you can keep control over the mind, wherever you are will be a heaven. If you do not have that control, even if you are in heaven, it will be a hell for you. The greatest victory that you can win is the victory over your own mind.
Discipline makes your mind stronger, and one pointed. It should, ultimately, help you to make your mind your servant rather than you being its slave.
Awaken: So, what you are saying is that in reality, discipline is not repressive, but rather serves as a liberating factor because with discipline, we are no longer controlled by the bothers and the tyranny of our own mind! Would you say that this is the whole point of Yoga, once we really get down to it?
Swami: Don’t be controlled by anything. Exercise your mastery. That is the aim of Yoga.
Awaken: Funny how discipline came to be a distasteful word!
Swami: Don’t ever forget that any achievement in life is based on discipline. It is through your discipline and meditation that you are being cleared and opened up to receive the true essence within.
Awaken: I imagine that many people would be surprised at the wealth of ground that Yoga covers, with regard to lifestyle and the need to cultivate discipline in so many basic areas! In this vein, what would be another area where we might do well to apply more discipline?
Swami: Speak less, and only speak about what is to be spoken of. Control of the tongue is very important. The tongue does two things: tasting and talking. Have limitations in both. There should be tranquility in everything, limitation in everything. Then, you will see that your life is completely transformed.
Awaken: Besides discipline, what else does a good Yogi need?
Swami: If there is one quality that a seeker must have, it is unshakable faith.
Awaken: Another word that shakes people up! Let’s be very practical about this… How does faith make life “better,”or easier?
Swami: If you have faith, you don’t need to worry about anything; you will be given the strength to accept everything. If you have absolute faith, you will always be happy and joyful, even in the midst of suffering.
Awaken: I’d like to connect the dots here… I’ve always heard it said, in all of the spiritual traditions that I have taken an interest in, that we should be equanimous… that we should remain undisturbed in the midst of all of life’s ups and downs. How does this relate to Faith?
Swami: Whatever comes, accept it as God’s will.
Awaken: In other words, accept the good and bad as equal… both are from God. Of course it is easier to do this, when we already have faith in a greater power?
Swami: To accept both pleasure and pain, profit and loss, praise and blame equally as gods gift… The sign of a good devotee is complete faith in God’s will. Resign yourself completely into the hands of God, into the hands of the unseen power that functions through you. You will be contented. If you believe in God, you know that God gives you everything that you need and takes away everything that you don’t need. If you really give yourself completely in the hands of God, you don’t have to worry about anything. God is there to take care of everything, every minute. Just have faith. Difficult situations come to give us a chance to prove our trust in a higher energy.
Awaken: It comes back to just being content with whatever comes our way, doesn’t it? And staying balanced, or to go back to that word, “equanimous” in the face of whatever comes?
Swami: A Yogi is like a surfer, who knows how to balance on his or her surfboard. The surfer welcomes even a big, rolling wave, because he or she knows how to enjoy it without getting caught in it. You will enjoy the world when you know how to handle it well, when you become master of it.
Awaken: Just to push into this a little bit more… It seems like deep inside of us there’s always this unverbalized hope that one mythical day, we will have surmounted all of our problems and challenges and life will just be dandy. But it’s not like that, is it?
Swami: Life must be a challenge. Only then, is it exciting. In an obstacle race, you are forced to surmount all the obstacles: to jump over the hurdles, go through barrels, crawl under rugs, climb over walls.
What would happen if, to avoid all that, you went around all the obstacles and asked for the winner’s cup? Would they give it to you? No. They would say, “you must go back and face all the obstacles.”
“Why?” you might ask. “If you are interested in giving me the cup, just give it.”
“Sorry. You have to prove that you deserve it, that you worked for it.”
Life is also a game, and we are proving ourselves. The challenge itself is joyous. If your life is always smooth, when you have great grandchildren, you won’t be able to sit back and tell them about all the adventures you had.
Imagine this conversation:
“You know, my child, when I was young like you, this is what I did…”
“Oh! Grandpa, you did that? And then what happened?”
“I went to the jungle. I was chased by a tiger.”
“Ahh! Ooo! Is that so?”
It will be so enjoyable to tell stories like that.
Instead, if you just say, “Well, since my birth, I just sat there at home. Nothing much happened,” the kids will get up and walk away. They won’t even listen to your story. So I have something exciting to tell everyone later on. You will be so happy and proud.
Make your life as exciting as possible, but always think of it as fun. The adversities, as well as the harmony should be enjoyable. Don’t become sober and morose and have a castor oil face in the name of spirituality. Just be happy. Jump with joy. Even if you make a mistake, say, “Hey, I did this? Great! What a wonderful lesson I learned!” if you really want to, you can make everything fun.
Awaken: I want to tell you, that I personally really appreciate the simple reminder to make life fun, even in the midst of challenges! It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that happiness is for “later.“ For when everything is taken care of… but this is no way to live! If we keep pushing happiness for some other time, the end may arrive before we’ve had a chance to appreciate the joy that is available in this moment!
Swami: As long as you are in the world, playing a part in this big drama, use the makeup and costumes, but don’t get caught in your part. Have fun and play that part until the curtain falls.
Awaken: As a philosopher, I would like to ask you about free will. Because it sounds like you are saying that we would do well to just take the position of a witness, so to speak, and take things lighter… step back a little bit and understand that life is happening, and we’re not the doers, and it’s like a play… we don’t have much control over it, anyway, so we better let go and enjoy the ride. It would sure lighten our burden if we could truly live this way, but where does free will fit into this?
Swami: Free will means you are free to take responsibility into your own hands, or to give it into the hands of God. If you take the responsibility yourself, after going through all these problems, difficulties and turmoil, you will finally say, “I am tired, God. I’m not going to try to handle this anymore. I know I cannot. So the best thing is for me to put the reins in Your hands. Let me take the back seat. You drive.”
There comes a time like that. That’s when your ego has been completely cleaned. Then, even though it might appear to others, that you are doing something, you will know that you are not doing it. You are being made to do it.
It is very difficult to have that kind of total surrender to God, because the ego enjoys its supremacy. It won’t give up that easily; there will be a big fight. You have to prove your capacity.
Awaken: In this light, the ego’s illusory sense of control seems so silly! Such an unnecessary load to carry, when it really controls nothing…
Swami: Whatever comes, comes from God. Whatever goes is taken away by God.
Awaken: Why does life feel so difficult sometimes?
Swami: God wants proof that you are totally surrendering yourself…
Awaken: To be clear, we are not referring to a God that is outside of ourselves?
Swami: Actually, peace is God. To me, there is no higher God… the Cosmic Consciousness, which you call God, or the natural force that runs through everything everywhere, also runs through you. It takes care of everything, including you if you don’t block it.
Awaken: And if everything is done by God, how do we account for personal responsibility, and the Karma that follows?
Swami: In the highest understanding, you never had any karma, and you don’t need to worry about facing your past karma. What performs karmic acts and undergoes the reaction of that karma is your mind. That isn’t you. You are the pure Self. Once the mind experiences the God within, there’s no more karma. It’s all burned. But until the mind experiences the true Self, the mind is still involved in actions, and has to face the reactions because it still has desires.
Awaken: So it brings us back to those pesky old desires! It’s just as the Buddha said… they are the the cause of our suffering!
Swami: Desires make you act. When the action is performed, the reaction is always there. That’s why Lord Buddha said that desire is the root cause for everything. May I clarify that to say that selfish desires are the root cause. It’s impossible for the mind to be without any desire. If there is no desire in the mind, there is no mind at all. The mind is like a rock pile. Take all the rocks away, and there is no pile. Likewise, the mind is nothing but a bundle of desires —past, present, and future.
Awaken: So, to summarize your point, it’s only the selfish desires that are the problem? Are you saying that benevolent desires aren’t bad? Can you elaborate?
Swami: Desires, for the benefit of others, do not create further desires. But personal desires, constantly create others, which do not allow the mind to remain calm. If selfish desires are fulfilled, you swing to the positive side, which is called excitement; if unfulfilled, you swing to the negative side, depression. But with selfless desires, it doesn’t matter. You don’t swing with the results; you always enjoy what you are doing.
Awaken: Staying balanced, like our surfer! So the point is to keep our desires in check, so as to keep that equilibrium?
Swami: To have maximum and endless joy, learn to be non-attached. That doesn’t mean ignoring people, or having no feelings about them, but avoid selfish attachment. If I address you hoping to get a little fame, or a few more disciples, then I’ll be either excited or disappointed, depending on what happens. If more people come, I’ll get excited. If nobody comes, I’ll become disappointed. Either way my peace of mind is disturbed. But if I’m free from that selfish attachment, I can still care for you yet not be disturbed, no matter what happens. Suppose somebody gets burned in an accident, will I feel sad? Yes, I will, and I will do anything possible to save the person, or do anything that is helpful — but without losing my peace… you can’t bring peace to others, unless you first have peace yourself.
Test all your desires and actions…
“Will this affect my peace?”
No? OK, let it be.
But if the answer is, “My peace will be disturbed,” stay away.