Finding Freedom From the Three Levels of Unconsciousness - Vāsanās
Another name for the ego in Sanskrit is chidabāsa, which means the Truth (of Brahman, or Supreme Reality) plus a reflection of that Truth. This is why our deepest memory as human beings, regardless of how far our thoughts, speech, and actions may wander away from Brahman, is of our bigness, of wholeness, and abiding joy (Ānanda).
We learned in Acharya Shunya’s Vedic Spiritual Studies Program series of ego classes how, due to the reflected part of our consciousness, as human beings, we are born with an inbuilt desire to mimic our true bigness, wholeness, and abiding joy. That is why we seek out transitory pleasures.
It’s as if we superimpose our own selves onto the world, and then start believing in an illusion that the abundance within us actually lives out in the world somewhere. As a result, we feel as though chasing transient objects and experiences will bring us closer to who we really are, to our true nature.
This temporal mirage of abundance as being outside of ourselves manifests in the form of three different vāsanās, or ego-driven desires. These vāsanās can also be thought of as three levels of unconsciousness that the ego experiences in its journey through the jagat, the objective, material world.
What Are the Three Vāsanās?
The three vāsanās are like three different clothing the ego wears. They revolve around the body (deha vāsanā), the outer world (loka vāsanā), and the learning we have (shāstra vāsanā). Let us explore them one by one.
Bondage of the Body
In the Vedic spiritual tradition, having physical pleasure (kāma) is considered one of the four worthwhile goals (called purushārthas) in every person’s life. We are taught that it’s perfectly acceptable to want the pleasures of radiant health, beautiful clothing, good sex, good food, and good company.
Where this legitimate goal of life becomes unhealthy, however, is when it turns into a vāsanā, known as deha vāsanā, which is an obsessive preoccupation with the body: your own and/or that of another. When this happens, the body’s health, pleasures, rest, looks, relatives, and possessions color the mind.
An Obsession with Physical Health and Sensual Pleasures
We can want health so badly that we will drop everything, even the pursuit of knowledge of how to be physically healthy via Vedānta’s sister science of Āyurveda, if we get sick.
When the legitimate goal of pleasure becomes a vāsanā, sex addiction can also result. When this happens, the sexual experience becomes like a reminder of our original potency; we experience spiritual potency through the sexual experience. When our only connection to spiritual potency comes through the sexual experience, it becomes hard to stop. The mind then starts to feel that sex must be had at any cost, whether that’s through pornography, and even sex crimes like rape and incest.
The body vāsanā can additionally manifest as food addictions. We may find ourselves overdoing our consumption of alcohol or certain foods, such as chocolates, cheese, bread, cookies, caffeine, etc.
When any sensual experience become excessive, what begins as an enjoyable experience becomes no longer satisfying. Natural bodily desires become needs, and needs become obsessions. Pleasure then leads to pain.
Preoccupation with the Body’s Appearance
With deha vāsanā, we may often worry about how we look, and can even resort to artificial means of “fixing” or cosmetically enhancing whatever we feel is not “good enough” or beautiful enough by external, worldly standards. It is very commonplace in the entertainment industry, as an example, for many people to undergo plastic surgery to achieve a certain sought-after look.
We can also feel terrified and dismayed by the process of aging: every gray hair, wrinkle, and loss of vitality can disturb our peace of mind.
Our own body becomes a prison in this way.
Intense Attachments to Other Bodies
Deha vāsanā can also manifest as attachment to other bodies. We can become very conscious of the body’s relatives, including mothers, fathers, husbands and wives, who we want to squeeze every ounce of love from. We may see if our relatives are meeting some kind of externally driven criteria that we read about on websites and in certain magazines (i.e. does your husband compliment you when you do a certain activity?). We can also get very attached to the bodies of pets.
This type of attachment to other bodies is inherently selfish, as we become consumed by what we can get from others in our lives, to the point that we may not even consider what is best for these other people and pets who we claim to “love.”
Attachments can also manifest on the opposite spectrum of love, in the form of hatred. When a person commits murder out of rage or anger, he or she gets completely consumed by an attachment to destroying the body of another, for one ignorant reason or the other.
It is the body vāsanā that can lead to jealousy, overeating, and even murders and sex crimes when the ego gets lost in the voracious, insatiable, unconscious desires of the physical being.
The Lost Search for Abundance
Loka vāsanā is what we experience when we equate our sense of abundance with what those in the outer world will give us in terms of name, fame, money, and other material resources. Material and biological survival is one of the four legitimate goals of human life as per the Vedas. The healthy pursuit of worldly possessions, assets, professional growth and recognition, in fact, is called artha purushārtha. When we get consumed by the pursuit of abundance in any of its external manifestations, it becomes loka vāsanā.
We experience loka vāsanā when we become a slave to money, will go to any length to get attention from the world, and find greater value in material achievements than in our spiritual pursuits.
Money and Materialism: Is Enough Ever Really Enough?
When money and material objects become the objects of the mind’s obsession, we are left perpetually feeling like we never have enough of either. We always want more. We feel we will only be abundant once we have ten thousand more dollars in the bank. Some of us stay in jobs where we’re treated like slaves just for money. There are plenty of women and men who have married and/or stayed in dysfunctional, abusive relationships only for the sake of money.
And yet, we see so many people who seem to have everything on the surface - money, property, an estate, jewels, and furniture galore - but still don’t feel abundant. The possession of material abundance is also often accompanied by the strong fear of its loss. The satisfaction that is sought is often not ultimately found.
Climbing the Never-Ending Corporate Ladder
Whether or not we work in the corporate world, it is natural to seek out ways to grow professionally. We can easily equate success in our work in the world as an indication of our abundance. When this happens, our professional contacts become very important, our contracts and clients become critical, our deals begin to define us, our status stands out in our mind, and so on. When any (or all) of these work-related measures mean everything to us, and are important to pursue at any cost, we are caught up in loka vāsanā.
A great example of loka vāsanā that Acharya Shunya gave in class was how the moment we get a promotion, we celebrate it, and then while celebrating it, we tell our best friend about how we’re thinking about how we can possibly get another one. Our experience of abundance gets replaced with our discontentment.
Name and Fame: All That Glitters is Not Gold
In addition to the elusive quests for money, material things, and professional advancement, the desire for name and fame can cloud our spiritual vision, with the appearance of glamorousness. All that glitters is not gold, however. We can see from the sheer number of celebrities who develop drug and alcohol addictions and even commit suicide that achieving mass recognition can still lead to a feeling of profound emptiness inside.
Whenever we become blinded by the pursuits of money, recognition, promotions, material objects, name, and fame as forms of abundance, no matter how much we may attain of any of these, we feel as though we never have enough.
The Shadow Side of Study
The third vāsanā described in the Vedic spiritual tradition revolves around the learning we have had. The degrees, the certifications, the advanced studies, the competencies we’ve accumulated, along with the quality of degree giving institutions we’ve acquired our knowledge from all become a very big vāsanā bodysuit for the ego.
Even the study of spiritual scriptures or texts, which are meant to free us from the myriad layers of our ego, can create a spiritual kind of ego that becomes an obstruction to our truly knowing what we have studied. This excessive desire for knowledge and learning is called shāstra vāsanā.
Losing Sight of the Aim of Learning
The vāsanā that can develop around scriptures and learning is a parrot-like, unexamined obsession with learning, in which there is never a thought around who is learning, for what purpose, and how much is enough. In terms of worldly learning, the ego can easily judge others’ overall competency by whether or not a person has an Ivy League degree or not. In the spiritual world, shāstra vāsanā shows up in the form of Vedic scholars who may quote all kinds of scriptures, such as Tattvabodha, Bhagavad Gita, Kena Upanishad, Katha Upanishad, etc., but do not live even one word of these teachings.
Seeing Through Filters We Are Familiar With
Another way that shāstra vāsanā manifests is when students perceive the knowledge they are receiving through the lens of what they already know. An example of this is an Āyurveda student coming in with a background of molecular biology, and evaluating the concepts of Āyurveda by what molecular biology proclaims about the same subjects.
Another example of how this happens is when a student comes in to study Vedic spirituality with a new teacher after having previously studied with someone else. Instead of emptying him or herself to receive knowledge from a different teacher, this student may claim to know it all already, argue with things that don’t match what he or she has previously learned, or otherwise get lost in intellectual debates around spiritual knowledge that was meant to be internalized and lived.
Bypassing the Teacher Altogether
Yet another way that shāstra vāsanā manifests is in those who feel they don’t need a spiritual teacher at all. Many people feel it’s enough to simply learn from the actual Shāstra (sacred text). Because spiritual teachings are so codified, however, we will likely not progress very far in learning from a book only, and may become even more prone to simply quoting instead of actually living the deep meaning behind each word encoded in the Vedic scriptures.
The Interconnected Nature of the Three Vāsanās
All of the three vāsanās are interconnected with and perpetually feed one another. If we ask a person considering doing a Phd in statistics why he or she wishes to do this, we are likely to hear that it is because this person needs a job, wants beautiful clothing, and so on. And often what happens when we are tired of survival (artha purushārtha) is that we seek pleasure (kāma purushārtha). Then, when we have enough of pleasure, we get bored eventually and want to preoccupy ourselves with the pursuit of pleasure. Our lives, when unexamined, easily revolve around the body, the world, and the learning we have had.
We not only naturally revolve around the three vāsanās; we are actually encouraged – and rewarded – by our modern society for our vāsanās. As Acharya Shunya shared in her Satsangha, our world is like a vāsanā bar, where everyone is high on vāsanā cocktails and mocktails. Vāsanās can become like drugs. We get high from the experiences of the world, the physical body, and our learning. Those who don’t display ‘enough’ of these vāsanās even get frowned upon for not having them.
There are so many forms of undermining we do to get things from others – undermining our pride, who we are, and everything we know to be true and noble. This causes us to give away our integrity just so that the ego can have one more high with the drug of outer approval, or in terms of another body holding us close, as two examples.
So much suffering happens due to the presence of vāsanās in our lives.
How To Free Ourselves from the Three Vāsanās
When on a spiritual journey, we have the opportunity to become liberated by the chains of our own vāsanās, and to transform our unconsciousness around the world, the body, and the learning we have had to a conscious relationship with all three. Awakening to spiritual knowledge means awakening to our own unconsciousness.
As our vāsanās get exposed to us in our study and personal contemplation on Jñānam (spiritual knowledge taught by an Āchārya), we gain the power to start to lay them to rest. When we do this, then what is originally within us gets self-revealed. Our true abundance flowers. We experience a deeper kind of fulfillment irrespective of who or what comes into or goes out of our lives. This is worth waiting for. What becomes self-revealed is true bliss, which we had inside of us all along – we just forgot.
Fortunately, along with sharing a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the problem of vāsanās, Acharya Shunya gave concrete examples of ways we can free ourselves from our obsessions with the body, the world, and the learning we’ve had with three paths of Yoga she has taught in her Vedic Spiritual Studies Program.
Going Beyond the Body: Seeing the Same Self in All
For the times when we are consumed by bodily desires (deha vāsanās), we are asked to practice Upāsana Yoga. Because Upāsana Yoga involves disciplines for the body, mind, and speech, it is a very helpful sādhana (spiritual practice) for transforming our preoccupation with our physical being into a sankalpa, or sacred intention, that our body, as well as our mind and speech become instruments for the divine to flow through.
Specific Upāsana Yoga Practices for Overcoming Our Obsessions with Physical Health and Sensual Pleasures
For those of us who are experiencing physical ill health, Acharya Shunya specifically recommends we repeat to ourselves this mantra:
“I have a body. I’m associated with a body that is going through a fever[or other health challenge], but I am not this body.”
What this practice will do is allow us to explore our separation from our physical body. Because both the mind and the body are involved whenever we experience physical dis-ease, we can employ our mind as an instrument to help us heal ourselves by de-fusing it from our body, and allowing it to naturally rest in its true source: the abidingly healthy spiritual Self.
If we find ourselves in a situation where we become dependent upon the sexual experience to experience our spiritual potency, we learned how we can employ our mind as an instrument by positively connecting it with the Ultimate Reality (known in Advaita Vedānta as Brahman). Instead of thinking I am a man or woman, and associating ourselves with our biological, sexual needs, we can affirm:
“I am Brahman – the Ultimate Reality.”
This practice of thinking of ourselves as the deepest source of spiritual potency is called Brahman Abhyāsa.
We can practice the above mantra, or we can chant any other mantra(s) we may know to connect us with our true spiritual power. Practicing physical yoga āsanas and yogic breathing exercises (prānayāma) are additional Upāsana Yoga practices that help us channel our physical desires into greater self-mastery and spiritual power.
Advaita Vedānta Contemplations to Support Developing Greater Detachment from Other Bodies
Acharya Shunya taught how instead of getting caught up in analyzing what our relatives are (or are not) doing, Advaita Vedānta helps us analyze our own selves. We learn from this spiritual tradition that the others who are coming into and going out of our lives are nothing but our own Self showing up in different bodies to help us see and understand different aspects of ourselves.
In terms of excessive attachments to life partners, we learned how Adi Shankaracharya reveals in Bhaja Govindam (a collection of Vedic spiritual hymns) that when we leave our physical bodies, even our own beloved husband or wife will not want to sit with our body at night in the mortuary. Our partner will get frightened by our body and its rotting smells. This is where the physical relationship between two bodies ultimately leads.
Similarly, as we gain more spiritual knowledge, we should strive to love the common, spiritual Self in our pets, instead of getting lost at the level of our pets’ physical bodies.
We should honor the body of our pets, loved ones, and ourselves, because we regard the body as kalu dharma sādhanam, the vessel for performing all noble actions (dharmas). We therefore love the body, heal it, put beautiful things on it, eat organic, and so on.
When the time for death comes, however, we must ultimately be ready to let go of our own body, and accept it when others in our lives face death. We learn in Acharya Shunya’s Vedic Spiritual Studies Program how death, in fact, is nothing but a change of clothing, where we exchange one physical body for another until the time of our spiritual freedom (moksha) comes.
Look Within: the Quest for True Abundance
To prevent ourselves from getting lost in the chase for material and biological survival, and experiencing the pain of how enough is never really enough in terms of worldly achievement and acquisition, we are taught to practice Karma Yoga.
At a practical level of application, the sādhana of Karma Yoga helps us develop a healthier, more sustainable relationship with the world by focusing our mind on the process versus the outcomes involved in our work. In Karma Yoga, we practice making our work an offering to the divine, god consciousness (known as Ishwara). We receive the results of our efforts, whether positive or negative, as a blessing (prasad) from Ishwara.
Meditate on Being in This World, Not of This World
Money and recognition are not the same as abundance. If it were, then we would not see so much distress among those who are rich and famous.
Acharya Shunya shared how we can work for happiness, or work from happiness. What Karma Yoga means in a spiritual sense is that we learn to work from happiness (that lives inside – always) instead of seeking happiness through the outcomes of our work (which are outside us, and therefore not fully in our control). We want to, in this way, develop a meditative contemplation as we work that I am in this world, not of this world.
We can still learn new skills, pull out our contacts, and do what we can to achieve material abundance. But the key is to know while we do so that this is what we are doing for a certain amount of time, and that our abundance actually lives inside us.
Connecting with Our Inner Wellspring of Creativity
Every messiah, great being, fountainhead of knowledge, original scientist, thinker, architect, and spiritual leader has gone inside to find their eureka moments. This meant going against the world, and going within. They had to essentially make a spiritual journey inwards to discover the gifts they were meant to share with us all.
We can similarly connect with our most creative, original expressions of ourselves and thereby produce our best work by freeing ourselves from loka vāsanās, to allow our true Self to shine – not for attention or approval, but simply because the nature of the Self is to shine.
Living the Knowledge: Transforming Information to Wisdom
For spiritual study, we are recommended to practice Bhakti Yoga to infuse devotion into our learning of Shāstra (spiritual knowledge contained in sacred texts). What devotion does is invite this special knowledge to not just remain an academic pursuit, but to actually change our whole lives. As that is the real power of Shāstra.
The Three-Step Process of Learning Shāstra
In the Vedic spiritual tradition, we are taught how there is a three-pronged process for acquiring spiritual knowledge.
Stage 1: Listening Deeply
The first step is called Shravanam, which is the stage in which we simply listen to the Āchārya expound upon the wisdom of the Vedas contained in Shāstra with as little distraction as possible – and for a long period of time. What listening does is allow us to fully receive whatever wisdom we need in a given moment.
Stage 2: Contemplation
After we have listened, we are asked to then engage in Mananam, which is contemplation on what we have listened to. This is where we churn on what we have heard by really deeply thinking about it. Questions may arise in this process. We are asked to bring questions to the Āchārya in this stage of the learning process, to have any doubts removed that prevent us from making the knowledge a part of our living experience.
Stage 3: Application
Once we have any confusions that arose in the contemplation stage cleared up, we are then told to practice applying the knowledge to our lives. This is known as Nididhyāsanam, which means applying the knowledge, and simultaneously meditating on it. To do this fully and well, we need faith, devotion, and consistency. This stage of acquiring spiritual knowledge is when information becomes wisdom. What we have heard has now become our experience – we have verified the truth of what we have been taught in the laboratory of our own lives.
When we share knowledge from the space of lived experience of what we are teaching, it has power. What gets transmitted in this case is not merely a matter of recitation of facts and quotes, or a teacher becoming a walking encyclopedia of sorts – knowledge that is lived has the capacity to change the lives of others by ultimately giving hope.
Rather than get caught up by shāstra vāsanā, with devotion, we have the opportunity to become truly free from all forms of bondage.
It is Jñānam (spiritual knowledge attained from following the above process) that ultimately helps us go beyond the body to see the same Self in all, find true abundance within us, as us (to connect with our true state of Ānanda – infinite bliss), and to transform information into wisdom and spiritual power.
The gift of Jñānam, indeed, sets us free.
This article comes from Hamsa magazine. We welcome you to enjoy reading each magazine to benefit from summaries of and heartfelt reflections on Vedika founder and Acharya Shunya's teachings, written by students of her Spiritual Studies Program.
The author Ananta Ripa Ajmera is a long-term student of Acharya Shunya, and serves as Director of Program Development at Vedika Global. She is author of "The Ayurveda Way," a collection of 108 practices for body, mind and soul that she learned from Acharya Shunya.