The teachings of advaita/vedAnta list several qualifications necessary for a student of self-knowledge to have. The first two are known as viveka and vairAgya. viveka is often translated as discrimination, which definition is further expanded to mean the ability to discriminate between the real and the unreal.
The real is defined as that which never changes. It is also known as Atma, brahman, the self, or absolute reality. The unreal is everything else. The hallmark of the ‘unreal’ is change.
vairAgya is often translated as dispassion. But as my vedAnta teacher has often pointed out, this isn’t really a very good translation of the word because it can conjure up images of a person with no apparent emotions who holds the world at bay.
So what do these two words viveka and vairAgya really mean and how are they used? For someone starting out on the journey of self-discovery, there can come a moment when that person realizes that any and all experiences in and of themselves cannot deliver what one is seeking. So what is that? What is it that I seek? I seek lasting happiness. I seek to feel whole and complete at all times, in all places, and in all circumstances.
There can come a kind of ‘Aha’, moment in the life of a seeker when it is recognized that everything he or she has tried in order to find lasting happiness hasn’t worked.
In my own life this happened when I was about forty years old. I’d spent a lot of time in my early twenties in India pursuing the idea I had of spiritual happiness and fulfillment, first through following the teachings of Neem Karoli Baba, and then in the States associating with his Western devotees.
After several years, I began to feel that spiritual pursuits were futile, and that I had better get serious about life, and get a proper job. So I got a job. Then I started a business, bought a house, got married, got a dog, and was living in a beautiful place in northern California, when one fine morning I woke up and realized that I wasn’t any happier than when I’d first gone to India at the age of 23 in search of a guru and enlightenment.
At that point, I decided to take another look at the spiritual path to see if what I sought, i.e. happiness, could be found there, because all of those things which were supposed to make me happy were not making me happy enough.
Although everyone’s life unfolds differently, I think my own experience pretty much outlines a pattern. We try to achieve this or that in order to find an experience of lasting happiness. Often we try to acquire those things which society tells us will make us happy, such as a home, a life partner, a good paying job, friends, and children. And to a greater or lesser degree these things may make us happy, at least temporarily.
But always at the back of our minds, is the knowledge that this isn’t quite it. This isn’t quite what I had in mind. And the reason we know this is because it’s true. Any experience gained can be lost, and the loss can happen unexpectedly, at any moment. This intuitive understanding even if not consciously acknowledged, results in our feeling insecure and wanting. We know all too well that any experience comes with the seed of suffering firmly embedded in it, because any experience gained is subject to change and loss. There is simply no way of getting around it.
For some people this intuitive understanding may lead to a moment of insight, a moment of recognition that every single thing one has tried has not delivered the goods. And not only that, a further understanding that one knows of nothing at all that really has the power to do that. Having correctly concluded that all experiences being temporary in nature, are in the end unsatisfactory, such a person may then wonder is there anything, anything at all that will provide me with the lasting happiness that I seek.
This moment of discernment can be described as initial viveka. The viveka, the discrimination that no changing experience has the power to bring about what I really want, which is lasting happiness. This person has not yet discriminated between the real and the unreal, between the changeless and the changing. This person has only gained a certain type of viveka regarding the changing world of experience, but it is a very important and necessary first step.
For some people this realization can also bring about a dark night of the soul. It can be very depressing and discouraging to realize that whatever I’ve tried, whatever I’ve gained after all my efforts, only has the ability to bring me the experience of temporary happiness, and that happiness is in itself unstable, and subject to go away at any moment if my circumstances were to change, which of course they inevitably do.
As a result of my initial viveka regarding the world of changing experience a preliminary type of vairAgya may then arise. Having recognized that no experience can deliver the lasting happiness I seek, I begin to turn my attention away from those things which I previously thought would make me happy because I have recognized their inherent limitations.
I turn my attention away, but I know of nothing to turn my attention towards and again this understanding may increase my feelings of depression and discouragement. What previously made me happy, no longer does. Or, because I’ve seen their limitations, these things no longer make me happy to the same degree as before.
At this point, as my teacher often says, the person may just throw up his or her hands to bhagavan, to the Lord, or to some sort of vague idea they have of a compassionate being, saying, ‘If there is any way out of my dilemma, if there is anyone there who can help me, please do. Please show me the way out of this difficult situation, because I’ve seen its limitations, and I don’t know if there is anything that can actually give me what I seek.’
This moment of despair and supplication can be referred to as the birth of the mumukShu. The mumukShu is the one who desires liberation from the bonds of birth and death.
Some years ago a movie was made of the popular book ‘Eat Pray Love’. I’m not a movie critic. Suffice it to say that the one part of the movie I really appreciated was when the main character, played by Julia Roberts, found herself kneeling on the floor, and out of desperation, unexpectedly praying for help from a God she didn’t believe in and had never spoken to before.
For the seeker who has seen through the limitations of changing circumstances, which circumstances are known as samsAra, for the one who has made a sincere and urgent request, for that one who desires liberation, the request will be answered. It may take time, and there may be some, or even many, false starts along the way, but eventually that person will find the teacher and teaching to help them out of their dilemma.
End of Part One (part two to follow)