I’m a Belgian ‘student’ of traditional advaita (from the Dutch speaking part of Belgium – I speak and write English, but some of the words/expressions in the following text may sound strange for native speakers of English, or contain mistakes; my apologies if this is the case).
Since about two years, I’m a regular visitor of the website of James Swartz, and I’ve also read his books (‘How to Attain Enlightenment’ and ‘The Essence of Enlightenment’). I’ve also sent questions by email to Sundari and Tan, to which I always got interesting and satisfying answers. Lately, I’ve also read some of your satsangs, and they also strike me as showing a deep insight.
May I ask you a question that has kept me busy, lately? The older I get (I’m almost 52 now), the more I’m confronted with suffering of other people, especially mental suffering. I guess the karma yoga attitude is trying to help where you can, but at the same time keeping an attitude of non-attachment. But the latter is really very difficult, especially when the people involved are good friends or members of the family (parents, for example), and also when you understand that there isn’t really very much you can do (which, in the case of mental suffering, is more often the case than with more practical problems). This causes worry and sadness on my part (which of course is also a form of suffering). I realize that the fact that one feels more sad about the suffering of relatives and friends than about the suffering of people that one knows less well (or not at all) is also a sign of an egotistic mind, but that’s how it is. My insight, at the moment, is not so deep that my compassion for people I don’t know is the same as for my own friends and relatives (which doesn’t mean there is NO compassion for strangers, of course). My question is: how to deal with these feelings of sadness and worry for the suffering of others, from the point of view of Vedanta? Is it ‘OK’ to feel sad, or should one strive towards a complete non-attachment?
Ted: It is okay to feel sad. Vedanta is not meant to turn you into a heartless automaton. If you have properly understood the teachings, you still care about people and do whatever you feel is within your power to help them. But at the same time you know that all objective phenomena—including the people suffering and the suffering itself—are only apparent, or not real. That is, while we definitely do experience pain (and pleasure as well) as human beings, it has no effect on our essential nature as limitless conscious existence. Once this truth is fully assimilated the presence of pain or the inevitable loss of any ephemeral pleasure we enjoy does not cause us to suffer.
The fact is that the teachings of Vedanta themselves are an offering of compassion from the teacher who would like to help alleviate the suffering that is caused by self-ignorance—which, of course, is the essential cause of all suffering. How effective would the teachings be if the teacher had a heart of stone?
Vedanta does not tell us to deny or dismiss pain and pleasure. It simply reveals that neither is real, and provides us with a means of ending the suffering that ensues when we don’t know this. Once we recognize that we are truly unaffected the character and quality of the objective phenomena appearing within the scope of our being, then we are free. Thereafter, pain and pleasure will persist for as long as we are associated with a body-mind-sense complex, but suffering will cease.
Maren: And if so, how is it different from indifference?
Ted: Dispassion and un-attachment—we say un-attachment rather than detachment because the self was never attached in the first place—do not equate with indifference or apathy. Dispassion and un-attachment are not emotional attitudes exhibited by the apparent individual. Rather, they are indicators of the nature of the self. Once you assimilate self-knowledge, you understand that you are already dispassionate and unattached due to the fact that you are not actually the apparent individual entity you appear to be who is afflicted with binding vasanas that cause it to feel passionate desire for objects, but rather the limitless conscious existence in which all objective phenomena appear. And just as the essential nature of the ocean water is not affected by the waves rearing up and crashing down within it, so your essential nature as limitless conscious existence is not affected in the least by the pains and pleasures arising and subsiding within the scope of your being.
Or to put it otherwise: how does one help others and care for them without being overwhelmed by their suffering oneself?
Ted: By offering whatever degree of help you can offer with the understanding that I have just described. Though it doesn’t remove the apparent suffering of the sufferer, self-knowledge prevents one from being overwhelmed in the face of the suffering because one knows that at an essential level the true nature of the sufferer is not being irreparably harmed or diminished to any degree.
Again, this doesn’t mean we don’t feel sympathy and a desire to help others who are suffering, it simply prevents us from being overcome with grief ourselves, which actually enables us to more effectively help others anyway.
Maren: I realize the question in itself is also a sign of ‘ego-tism’…
Ted: I know this might be due to the language issue you prefaced your inquiry with, but to be clear “egotism” is feeling that you are better than others, while “egoism” is feeling that you are separate from others (i.e., that you are an independently existent volitional individual).
Maren: …but I guess it doesn’t help others if one becomes as distressed as them. It’s just creating more suffering.
Maren: I do understand this rationally, but this rational insight does not really help in avoiding these feelings of sadness and worrying.
Thanks in advance!
Ted: Yes, rational insight itself doesn’t really prevent suffering. Only when the true nature of the self has been apprehended and self-knowledge has thereafter been fully assimilated will suffering end. Moreover, the emotional reactions of sadness and worry will most likely persist even after one has gained self-knowledge, for thoughts, which are the basis of emotions—are not under our control. The difference is that after gaining self-knowledge, one won’t be swept away or overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings that are experienced.
All the best,