“Spiritual life is like a razor’s edge.” – Vedic aphorism
It’s true, it shaves us clean but if we’re not careful we can get cut. I speak from experience, and write this mostly for my own purification and clarity. When we begin spiritual life the taste is just incredible, the chanting of the Maha-mantra is so relishable we can’t stop, the philosophy is wonderfully new and fresh and our realisations are coming thick and fast and we’re enlivened. Mostly what we’re feeling though is the relief from the anxieties and pains of material life that we’ve freshly escaped from. That relief only lasts for a short time and in the beginning the contrast is clear, but over time the memory of material suffering wanes a fair bit, and we can easily become attracted again by various sensual engagements forgetting that they once became stale and were a cause of misery. Hearing about that helps remind us, and stopping hearing makes us forget and allows the mind to contemplate engaging again in things which aren’t beneficial spiritually.
Material existence means undergoing a lot of suffering, reactions from past misdeeds that caused others suffering, to varying degrees. Some of us have more good karma than bad, some undergo a lot of bad karma. In any case it’s quite a mix. To avoid undergoing sufferings of the mind and body we often have a fallback, an activity or a habit that distracts us from facing the uncomfortable or painful situation we’re faced with. That can be the distraction of TV, junk food, cigarettes, alcohol or other drugs, gambling, or sex. So to varying degrees our fallback to habits that are familiar and somehow comforting, can be damaging to the degree of how serious the activity is. For some it’s ‘retail therapy’ – buying consumer goods or fashion that we really don’t need. It’s the same pattern or habit regardless of the details, and in due course can become severely addictive.
What is underlying the behaviour is we’re ultimately trying to fill a void within us, an existential emptiness. As spiritually conscious beings that are naturally happy and complete when in our original position, having fallen away from that position we’re left with a gaping hole which no amount of material things can fill, and try as we might we need more and more of the same thing to find any satisfaction and the law of diminishing returns means we sink further into the behaviour and become increasingly entangled in it and more degraded. Such is the situation in many cases in the world, an epidemic of extremely unhealthy behaviour as we drift further and further away from a natural way of life and the satisfaction that comes from human interactions, into an artificial society with an increasing complexity of gadgets and less and less personal interaction.
Anyone who happens by,
On their way to somewhere else
Clicking through the endless screens
For the garbage on the shelves
Reflections of ourselves
To consider the cost
Of all this shit we seem to think
Will fill our perforated souls.
We’re more hole than human being
Can’t wash away that stink
– Propagandhi ‘Unscripted Moment’
Tracing the fall in my own experience, I’m faced with the lack of loving human exchanges as being the root cause of addictive behaviour surfacing, probably beginning from childhood and a lack of nurturing. As parents we often carry the traits of our own parents and perpetuate a cycle of dysfunction. In my experience one of the traits of the great British family is to never reveal your true feelings. They weren’t really talked about, so your mostly buried them rather than express them, and to show emotions especially negative emotions makes you vulnerable. To cry, for example, for a man especially was seen as a great weakness. Yet it’s not at all. It’s a healthy release of emotions and to suppress that is more damaging than to express it, even if it does leave you vulnerable and exposed. It’s most likely a survival instinct, similar to animals in pain often not expressing it outwardly in order to not attract attention from possible predators seeing the weak and vulnerable condition they may be in.
Sometimes we have to retrace our steps back to when problems first arose, and face the pain in going through past painful scenarios in order to heal the pain and trauma we currently face. Spiritual life is one of self reflection, seeing within our hearts and minds what’s going on and dealing with that with whatever tools we have available, and because of that it can be very difficult. It’s easier to ignore things and to assume we’re just fine the way we are, than it is to face our character flaws and bad traits and have to begin to change them. In the long run though we’re much better off though dealing with what is keeping us bound to material activities and thus material suffering.
I’m bringing my baggage here
from another time
My personality follows me around
Well problems, they don’t go away
They stay until they I look them in the face
If I don’t face them
They grind me into the ground again
I know that this fear – it isn’t real
It’s created in the mind
I know that this flesh isn’t the same
– it just changes over time. Eternal
– Shelter ‘Eternal’
My own journey has found me at a crossroads, looking back at material life as being a dim prospect for happiness, yet looking ahead to a spiritual life that is one of discipline and struggle but with a much brighter goal. One of my stumbling blocks is avoidance, not facing what needs to be done in order to progress, and we have to overcome the hesitation and fear to push ahead and have a leap of faith that against all odds we can lift ourselves out of the patterns of the past and carve out a better future. As we do push on towards our spiritual goals we notice signs of going in the right direction, and have to learn to recognise those signs, which sometimes come as encouragement from people that see from their perspective that we’re improving even when we can’t always see it. If we lack self esteem we can dwell on our problems and make them seem overwhelming, and we need to boost that self image and think positively and make the best use of the situation at hand and surround ourselves with the people that will encourage us and avoid those that will detract from our progress. That can be difficult and mean associating closely with fewer people but valuing the quality of their association and not taking things for granted.
Standing at the point
The road it cross you down
What is at your back
Which way do you turn
Who will come to find you first
Your devils or your gods
– Tracy Chapman ‘Crossroads’
I’ve noticed that my habits rise and become stronger when my self esteem is lowered, and it’s because we can lack self worth that we allow ourselves to engage in activities that aren’t good for us. We have to think ‘will this activity make me feel better afterwards or worse?’ Addictive behaviours always make us feel better only temporarily but when the high of the ‘hit’ is soon gone we feel worse, guilty, remorseful. That hit can again be a drug, or it can be food… for me it was sex. Which is possibly one of the strongest and most difficult habits to break free from. The whole material world revolves around sexual attraction, and indeed the cycle that generates the bodies of living beings depends on sexual reproduction and that’s why it is such a strong force because it has to override the otherwise unpleasant side of giving birth to and raising offspring.
“The genitals and the pleasure of begetting counteract the distresses of family encumbrances. One would cease to generate altogether if there were not, by the grace of the Lord, a coating, a pleasure-giving substance, on the surface of the generative organs. This substance gives a pleasure so intense that it counteracts fully the distress of family encumbrances.”
– Srila Prabhupada ‘Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 2.6.8’ purport
Modern society has very much exaggerated and distorted the function of sex to one of magnificent proportions, as if it’s the pinnacle of enjoyment and the very goal of life! It’s no wonder we’re so afflicted by it and it has become the cause of so many problems in society. In urban life we’re bombarded by it almost constantly in popular culture and fashion and to advertise any number of products. We’re so sexually stimulated from an early age yet sex is also quite a taboo in many ways so we end up with a situation where sexual needs are artificially increased but with such a stigma surrounding sex, and the unhealthy outlets such as prostitution are surrounded by guilt and shame. We tell society to engage in plenty of sex then tell them they have a problem that they’re doing things to try to fulfil the need which aren’t right, or even illegal. And the groups that try to treat the problem increase and it’s difficult to uproot a desire or habit that is deep rooted by years of indulgence.
Advertisers create false necessities
Send us out on shopping sprees
One more thing that’s all we’ll need
Sex sells: billboards rely on it
Any product with some woman trying it
Are you laughing or are you buying it?
– Shelter ‘Consumer’
Vedic society which started to dissolve about 5000 years ago was more liberal in it’s dealing with sex as can be seen by many of the ancient temple carvings in India. Many stories are there in the history about society girls and prostitutes, people of the third gender which encompass what we have today in the acronym LGBTI (and whatever other letters keep getting added!), and all these varieties of people were acknowledged and accepted for who they were and given equal opportunity to elevate themselves spiritually if desirous of doing so. To keep things swept under the carpet makes things progressively worse, and modern society has certainly got quite a sickness in regards to sex, drugs and other societal problems.
Spirituality means understanding that we are different from the outer bodily covering and our conditional nature, while requiring proper engagement, isn’t our true or eternal nature. We work with the psycho-physical nature that we have to move towards the essential spiritual nature, utilising whatever characteristics and skills we have in this body in service to the complete whole, known in Sanskrit as Krishna – the all attractive whole. As parts of a machine serve the whole machine and have no true value being separated from it, we also are meant to serve the Supreme person with love and thus all have the same value by working in concert with the whole.
“By giving water to the root of a tree one satisfies its branches, twigs and leaves, and by supplying food to the stomach one satisfies all the senses of the body. Similarly, by engaging in the transcendental service of the Supreme Lord one automatically satisfies all the demigods and all other living entities.”
– Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 4.31.14
This is the ultimate solution to our problem of being habituated or addicted to sense gratification of one form or another. Our material senses are never satiated and demand more engagement like putting more fuel on the fire – it goes down while consuming the fuel but then again rages more strongly. But the material senses are like the covering or clothing of the original spiritual senses underneath, and engaging the senses in service to Krishna respiritualises the senses, such as hearing and chanting the Hare Krishna Maha-mantra purifies the tongue/voice and the mind. The result is we experience and increasing pleasure which is transcendental to material pleasure which always decreases upon repetition, and thus we can gradually break the cycle of seeking pleasure on the material platform which is limited and temporary. When we can relish pleasure beyond the physical body only then can we cease from sense gratification, otherwise artificially it’s not possible and only repressed temporarily. Which is where I find support groups only stop-gap solutions that give support via like-minded people, and even give a sense of a Higher Power of your personal understanding – but fail to give a tangible experience that can replace the one we’re stuck with. A higher taste to replace the lower one.
“The embodied soul may be restricted from sense enjoyment, though the taste for sense objects remains. But, ceasing such engagements by experiencing a higher taste, he is fixed in consciousness.”
– Bhagavad-gita 2.59
It’s not easy, because we’re conditioned by material nature so deeply, and like a person with jaundice tastes sweet as bitter we may initially find spiritual activities fairly tasteless or even detestable, but the solution is to persevere and reawaken the taste gradually and resist the temptation to eat the bitter fruit of material pleasures even as they may nag at us for attention. The desire that we feed becomes stronger, thus the discipline in spiritual life is necessary up until the stage when we’re no longer attracted to material things – enthusiasm, confidence and patience are 3 of the main principles that bhakti or devotional service thrive on.
In material pursuits we’re often enthusiastic to achieve things we desire and at first we may think spiritual life would be devoid of that enthusiasm or ‘passion’ that ends up being the enemy of lust. But the lust we have within is a distorted form of the originally pure love that we possess and the devotional process reverses it back again to true love, prema. Modern society more or less uses the word love where it’s more accurately lust – the personal desire to gratify our senses or the senses of people that in turn will gratify ours. Selfishness, personal or extended. Love for Krishna is selfless, in the ultimate stage, though in the beginning may be mixed with selfish desire such as is common to pray to God for material things. Following the example of great devotees we keep our aim toward pure devotion or else we may get what we want materially only to realise it didn’t satisfy our real needs.
“Since my mind has been engaged in the service of the lotus feet of Lord Krishna, and I have been enjoying an ever new transcendental humour, whenever I think of sex life with a woman, my face at once turns from it, and I spit at the thought.”
In conclusion, I’ve come to the realisation in my life through a lot of pain, learning the hard way that lust for sense gratification ends in misery even though in the beginning it’s so appealing. The external energy of Krishna around us is called Maya or ‘that which is not’, meaning that it does factually exist but can appear to us differently than the actual reality. As energy it’s mostly empty space between atoms and always changing yet appears to us as solid and permanent. In this way we become illusioned by seeing it as ‘ours’ – something for the taking and enjoying, but when we awaken and see it as Krishna’s energy we utilise that energy in service as opposed to claiming proprietorship over it.
As ISKCON’s founder Srila Prabhupada said, iron put in the fire becomes red hot until it acts just like fire, the analogy being the energy we think as ‘material’ is actually spiritual when seen in relation to Krishna as it’s source and in that way someone who is fully ‘Krishna-conscious’ isn’t experiencing anything material but seeing the same Supreme Lord in everything. It’s a lofty goal which is realised progressively in stages, with the knowledge and guidance of those who have mastered the art of it, and the actual purpose of human life for which we should strive and alone can free us from the suffering we undergo chasing the false pleasures of this world.