Q&A with Br. Dayamrita Chaitanya

Question: Swamiji, though we engage in spiritual practices every day, sometimes we are swept away by our vasanas (latent tendencies) and it takes a while before we get back to our spiritual routine. What is the way out of this?
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Answer: Our vasanas are always present in our daily lives. We might think that we are only swept away by our vasanas occasionally. However, we run behind these vasanas constantly.
Vasanas are the latent tendencies of the mind. The mind manifests in different ways: as a single thought, as a memory, as intellect, and as emotions. Vasanas are expressed through these faculties of the mind.
We could consider our daily routine as an example of the role vasanas play in our lives. Let’s say that we would like to start doing meditation first thing in the morning. When we get up in the morning, we may think of sitting for meditation but immediately another thought -- how nice it would be to have a cup of coffee -- pops up in our mind. Because this thought is habitual and related to pleasure, it is very strong, and thus, as a strong vasana, translates into action: we skip meditation and have that cup of coffee. The vasanas are nothing but the latent tendencies of the mind and are associated with thoughts of pleasure or pain.
Suppose we see a stranger approaching us, the immediate, habitual reaction of our mind may be “Who is he/she, why are they here? What do they want?” There may be some emotion such as irritation or resentment accompanying these thoughts. Or suppose we see an acquaintance--one who has always been a bother -- approaching us; then our mind immediately reacts, thinking “There he/she comes again; they must want something from me, that is why they’re coming.” When we see the person, the mind goes straight to its habitual judgmental thinking. That person may not even want anything from us, yet our mind has already judged that person. Due to our strong, habitual, latent tendencies, our mind has created that kind of thought and associated emotion.
We react in certain ways because of the latent tendencies of the mind, which have been stored from the past. We must realize that preconditioned, reactive thoughts automatically occur before and lead to the very action itself. This kind of deeply ingrained habitual thinking prevents us from doing the action properly. To give another example, let us say that during Amma’s program, we are assigned a seva that we dislike. As we enter the hall to do it, our mind is very busy. We might think: “How many times have I done this seva, it is useless and does not have any purpose, why am I doing it!?” Vasanas cause a negative reaction, which damages the action itself. Negative thinking and preconceived notions often disables our ability to do actions properly.
What differentiates a spiritual person from a non-spiritual person? A spiritual person becomes increasingly aware of his or her mental reactions whereas the non-spiritual person––unaware of these thoughts––continues to act according to the mind’s habitual thoughts. The non-spiritual person is not aware of the vasanas and thinks that they are a fine part of his or her character. In contrast, a spiritual person becomes aware of a thought the moment it arises in the mind. Developing this awareness is not easy; it requires ongoing sadhana. Initially we might not be aware of thoughts, but slowly, as we continue our spiritual practices, awareness dawns. As we continue our efforts, we begin to catch thoughts as soon they enter our mind.
Change happens at the thought level and not merely at the action level. Through awareness, we can subtly tell our mind to move away from thoughts that are not beneficial. Vasanas can be overcome with the help of the intellect, sadhana and the Guru’s grace. As we keep catching the negative thought and correcting it and erasing it, we progress. Otherwise, if we just keep acting and reacting without awareness and discrimination, then we are just like people without spirituality. Change must occur at the level of the mind - the subtle level - in order for our actions and behavior to change.
Initially we might have the tendency to not obey the higher voice within us, or we might not try and change our thought processes. The vasana level is often more comfortable and familiar, and so we often follow the lower level of the mind. These vasanas are very strong. In the epic Ramayana, the monkey king Vali has a boon which allows him to draw on half the strength of his opponent in a fight. So when Vali has this added strength, drawn from his enemy, no one could win against him in a battle. Any opponent has lost even before the fight has begun. Vali represents our negative tendencies and vasanas. When we try to fight our vasanas directly, they will draw away half of our strength. Then we have only half of our strength, allowing the vasanas to always triumph.
The greatest debate within the Ramayana is: why did Rama hide himself and kill Vali rather than face him and fight? Rama knew that if he was to face Vali directly, half of his strength is gone and hence must fight Vali indirectly. This is a clue for us as to how to overcome our vasanas. Amma has said that we might sit in front of a television and say, “I am not going to watch TV, I am not going to watch TV,” but that this effort is futile––eventually we will start watching TV. This problem can be solved by applying awareness and discrimination, allowing us to understand when we will succumb to a situation. When we know we will be tempted or distracted, we can use our discrimination to exit a situation, or get off the couch away from the television. Initially we have to avoid such situations, using our awareness to eliminate the tendency by changing the situation. Only after we have gained the mental strength can we return to a previously unproductive situation and become more constructive. This example shows that if we try to fight our vasanas directly, we will always fail. We need to eliminate our vasanas indirectly through awareness.
Despite the importance of awareness and effort, these are not sufficient to eliminate vasanas. Vasanas and negativities will always exist and arise in the mind. However, we should not be discouraged or be afraid and feel defeated when we succumb to these vasanas. Amma tells the story of a person who was walking on a narrow path on a side of the mountain. As he came around a corner he saw a boulder on the path. He tried to remove it but it was so big and he could not do anything. Finally, he gave up and started praying to God to help him. After some time, he heard a loud voice from the sky saying “Push.” He knew it was God’s voice and he felt enthusiastic and thought if he pushed the boulder, it would simply roll down the hill because God had spoken to him. He pushed for hours but the boulder did not move even an inch. He got so exasperated and throwing up his arms in the air he looked up to the skies and questioned why he was asked to push. He heard a voice from the sky say, “I only said push, I did not say that the boulder would move.” Like that, we need to keep fighting constantly – we do not know when our vasanas will be eliminated.
Even with effort, the total elimination of the vasanas is possible only with the help and grace of a Satguru. Vasanas can be eliminated in a second, if the Guru decides to do so. However, this does not mean that we should keep quiet or wait for the Guru’s grace to eliminate our vasanas. We should put in our effort and try to eliminate the vasanas through awareness and discrimination. If we fall prey to our vasanas we should ask for forgiveness from the Guru, and continue to try. Just because we fell into the trap does not mean that we need to stay there. Amma says that when we fall down we should not just lie down there thinking that it is comfortable. We should get up and continue our efforts with awareness and discrimination. We do not know when the Gurus’s grace is going to fall on us but we should constantly keep trying. The saints say that self-effort is needed. Without self-effort, grace cannot dawn on us.
Constant spiritual practice is required to gain mental strength. Hence, we should not stop performing sadhana thinking that there is no benefit doing these practices. Even if we fall prey to the vasanas, please do not worry. We must keep doing our spiritual practices, and this will eventually help us obtain the grace of Guru. Through this grace, the elimination of vasanas will eventually occur.
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