Working INWARDS for Thriving OUTWARD Relationships
Many things seemed predictable when I was a child growing up, because they happened every day, and I naturally assumed things would continue that way forever. Or perhaps I didn't think too much about them. When I finally spread my wings to fly out of my cozy nest, and started engaging with the world by myself, making my own way, and then proceeded to start a family with my partner, it seemed I had walked onto the set of another movie, and they had forgotten to give me a script.
I began to navigate using what I had, often stumbling, falling, experiencing great joy along with abysmal depths of sorrow, and slowly beginning to realize the unpredictability of the situation. Why was everyone not behaving the way I expected and wanted them to? Why were things not 'just so'? What are these new roles I was being forced to play? Why couldn't my heart stick to the script I had assimilated by observing those around me while I was growing up? If I may use a simile, why was I being handed strawberry ice cream when everyone around me should know that I only like chocolate?
My being was full of questions wanting to be answered and puzzles waiting to be put together. What was it that would bring all this together? When would people realize what a wonderful person I was and let me have my way?
This confusing human experience, not unique to me I realized, started becoming less overwhelming when I heard, then contemplated and began to put into practice, the knowledge on life stages called ashramas from my teacher Acharya Shunya's Vedic Spiritual Studies program. What was it that I learned here?
The Vedic sages, whose home was the Indian subcontinent to begin with, but whose vision and experience spanned all humanity irrespective of color, creed, belief or religion, observed that the human experience could be understood and lived through four stages of life – when we are growing up with few worldly responsibilities and are getting educated with tools to live out life (student mode or Brahmacharya ashrama), when we are in full-on engage mode with the world and caught up in the web of intimate relationships (householder mode or Grihastha ashrama), when the world signals that we are being relieved of our responsibilities and we can naturally withdraw or slow down the pace with worldly engagements (renunciate mode or Vanaprastha ashrama), and finally when we see our life experiences as a flourish in a bigger spiritual picture and can reach some level of equanimity to begin to answer life's foremost question 'Who am I?' (monk mode or Sannyasa ashrama). This question, the Vedas advise, would do well to be asked at every stage of life. I feel the resulting spontaneous answer from within can be an honest indicator of our experience thus far.
Grihastha Ashrama is that very stage of life that had me almost paralyzed with doubts and confusions. Now, this is when we are emerging into our own, and engaging with the world, perhaps through familial life with a partner, children, relatives and even transacting in a business. If it sounds so overwhelming, why not just skip this householder stage and go to less bothersome stages that lie ahead? Even though it may be considered sage advice, but the sages didn't advise this 'grapes are sour' form of renunciation. In fact, they felt that all stages of life are great experiences to explore and then potentially realize one's own true Self. In the case of the householder stage, one can discover one's truest Self through interactions in relationships with others and the world.
Acharya Shunya, being a householder or grihastha herself, had ample experience in navigating this stage and through her teachings, continues to shed light on new, interesting ways to look at this important stage of life. This knowledge has been tremendously helpful in shedding light on my ongoing journey.
Naturally I listened to this knowledge hungrily and contemplated upon it a lot. I was relieved to know that I am not the only one who feels like they are finding it hard to navigate the householder stage. This must have been a common human experience since the beginning of humanity, deserving observation and contemplation, out of which came insights and ways of transcendence or spirituality.
What have I encountered as I pass through this stage myself? What have I seen as I go through this colorful, dramatic, intense experience? How has spirituality helped me?
Well, it has given me the tools to see, know and understand the larger context of this life and recognize patterns that have been in existence forever. Given an interaction, let's say with an in-law, I can go through multiple spirals of action and reaction, with scripts that have been repeated sub-consciously or unconsciously. Or, I have the choice to exercise my spiritual muscle and respond to them in a way that elevates consciousness. I could go through a turbulent exchange with a child, and if things are not going the way I want, fall back into some reactionary patterns picked up from my childhood. To learn another way to be, a way that sits well with my deepest being, is the invitation.
Living life without a map, in this case Vedic knowledge, was like being on an alien planet. When I don't know the lay of the land, every obstacle has the potential to throw me off track. Every setback can reinforce my inadequacy in dealing with unknown or threatening situations. But when I remember I am a spiritual being having an earthly experience, I can pause for a few moments to inquire and refresh myself at the oasis of truth inside me. I can then begin to see the very same challenges and obstacles in a curious way, as learning opportunities. I can then draw from an infinity mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, to find responses and solutions.
As I see it now, the challenges or learning opportunities in the householder stage or grihastha ashrama come from the limited self being in relationship with people, with objects, with aversions and compulsions, being pushed and pulled between acting and reacting, manipulating and being manipulated, and certainly not the least, the how's and what's of communication. For example, not being able to express what is really in our heart (our desire for love and acknowledgement) and instead only spit out our anger at not receiving it, sets off a chain of blame game.
As Acharya Shunya shared, the learnings will flower from within; however, the tools to navigate these areas can be found through a spiritual approach. Each of these challenges becomes an area of healing and wellbeing, when certain attitudes and mindful actions are employed. That is one of the core teachings of Karma Yoga - cultivating and employing the appropriate attitudes, and choosing the appropriate actions.
I remember Acharya Shunya talking about the adaptive self, the limited self. In order to survive through certain situations, human beings often adopt modes of behavior such as feeling like a victim, or overly pleasing others, depending on validation by others or becoming belligerent like a bully. All these modes of behavior obscure the recognition of the true, shining, wholesome Self in all.
What are the attitudes and what are the actions that will restore us to wholeness?
The ancient sages were wise indeed. They understood that these daily transactions of being in the world and acting in the world can deplete us and yet they are crucial for our survival and existence in this plane of existence. Instead of artificially renouncing and cutting ties with the world, they knew that the transcendence would come from turning this endless cycle of action or karma to karma yoga.
With this contemplation, I no longer have to bow mechanically to societal conditioning or mindlessly do what was expected of me, even though resentment was simmering away inside. By casting aside those negative thought patterns, by being educated about the nature of the Self and its strength and potential, by practicing the tools offered by spirituality, I started seeing the many opportunities that this stage of life was presenting me, to reach within and express the truth of my being.
I thought being spiritual was one thing and being a householder was another. Never could the twain meet. But when Acharya Shunya spoke about how important it was to inquire into one's own being, discover and bring that into one's doing, through Karma Yoga, I started seeing a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel.
How to do and what to do needs a brief sharing on sattva, rajas and tamas – the three meta threads which weave the world of our mental experience. Day and night themselves bear witness to their intertwining patterns, and they are reflected in all beings, their actions and their mindsets.
Rajas is movement. The pitfall is when it is unexamined. While I was making my way in the world, there was loads of unexamined rajas in my mind, so I felt I had to keep doing and moving, often upwards on the ladder of ambition, as I had not learned to look within. It was all about what gave pleasure to the senses and what didn't. The senses fed into the mind, and together, they were trying to ensure that my journey through this world was cushioned, that I could continue to collect and hoard objects and experiences that gave me pleasure, at 'my' beck and call or so it felt. I now understand that the mind and senses are there to ensure our survival, and they are always acting as they are programmed, but when they are not trained, the question of 'how much is enough', doesn't get asked.
Rajasic actions are motivated towards the survival, benefit and aggrandizing of the limited self or the ego self, the self that is separate from all other beings, the self that is competing with all other beings for survival, forgetting that this limited self comes and goes in space and time, and is one expression of the unlimited, larger field of consciousness. These rajasic actions can often be at the cost of another's well-being.
When my vision of the world collided with another's or with reality, I remember being angry at the thwarting of my desires, and then followed sadness and grief. When the sum of my energy wasn't enough to have my way, or lift me out of that sadness, it gave way to depression. Tamas is the quality of inertia that took over now. It infuses a sense of not-knowingness, which is healthy when we sleep or relax but not when we are awake and transacting as a householder. When there is stagnation, confusion and depression in relationships, that would be perhaps due to unexamined tamas in our minds. When I didn't get the support that I felt was due to me, I quickly escaped into victim mode (more tamas). So, from unexamined activity (rajas) to unexamined dullness (tamas), life had begun to feel like a yo-yo. With tamas based actions, one hurts oneself and others. For example, a defeatist attitude, becoming an obstacle in another's path, perpetuating negativity through one's talk are tamas actions. And thus, the stage of a householder was all set to give me a roller coaster ride, in my own amusement park like mind!
There are many descriptions of sattva – the quality of clarity, well-being, wholesomeness, expansiveness among them. Yes, the mind feels balanced when the sattva quality is predominant in the mind. Sattva is immanent in actions that benefit everyone, even though it may seem like they are not benefitting the individual self immediately. Ultimately, everyone does benefit because we are part of the whole. But the individual has now renounced benefit to the limited self at the expense of another more expansive universal self.
The options for choosing rajasic, tamasic or sattvic behavior became clear to me in one situation where I was planning for an event and had overlooked certain details. That omission resulted in no food being cooked for the volunteers. That was a big oops moment, and I felt really bad about it. If I allowed rajas to dominate my mind, I would pretend that I had not made a mistake, do a good cover-up job and may even blame another, while feeling anxious inwardly. In fact, to put people in their place, I might even bring up faults and past mistakes of anyone who dared to confront me. Oh, it was tempting.
With the tamasic option, I may sink into self-deprecation and lose sight of the suffering of those volunteers. A juicy tamasic choice would be to let others make mistakes, that could be prevented with mindfully given feedback, and as a result, everyone would suffer. Then I could show up and point out how I was not the only one who could make a mistake.
The sattva option was the hardest on my limited-self but the most freeing ironically. I could take responsibility for the lapse and apologize to those affected without deprecating myself but with an honest acknowledgement. I could make a note to self to learn from this episode. With spiritual binoculars, I could see all these options jostling around in my mind space, and then I had to choose one that would keep me on my chosen path. Ah, a householder rescued from an embarrassing situation, by the sattva of their own mind!
Thus, my journey continues as a relatively more awake householder, who is deliberately finding it useful to see through my own mind's rajas and tamas and always choose sattva. As I look at every area of my life as a householder, I realize I don't have all the answers yet. But I am more peaceful. I call myself a sattva farmer- and I cultivate sattva every day to navigate through the challenging but spiritually rewarding grihastha ashrama.
The author Vaidehi Shivani Maheshwari is a long-term student of Acharya Shunya, and serves as Program Director of Vedika's Ayurveda Ancestral Herbal Library.
Learn more about how you can study Vedanta with Acharya Shunya in her Vedic Spiritual Studies Program.