Jivamukti Focus of the Month, October, 2014: Serene Intelligence, by Sharon Gannon

Mayy eva mana adhatsva / mayi buddhim nivesaya /
nivasisyasi mayy eva / ata urdhvam na samsayah Keep your mind on me alone, your intellect on me; thus you will dwell in me from now on.

Bhagavad Gita XII.8

In this age of struggle, known as the Kali Yuga, it can be very difficult to maintain a serene mind. Conflict between nations, conflict at work, conflict with enemies, conflict with friends, conflict at home, and even conflict within oneself can disturb one’s mind and destroy one’s happiness. It is common to be suspicious of someone who is happy and calm, thinking they must be ignorant, uneducated, living in a bubble or even mentally ill, and that to be an intelligent, caring human being one must be disturbed and filled with anxiety, and further that if you seek solace in spiritual practices you are an escapist living in denial and burying your head in the sand.

Buddhim or buddhi means “intelligence.” The highest and most important aspect of the intellect is its ability to grasp and understand the truth. Many people focus their minds on relative truth, that which is bound by the transient comings and goings of temporary existence, while the spiritual practitioner aims to comprehend or dwell in absolute truth. Absolute truth is knowledge of the supreme Self or God. Krishna in this verse from the Gita tells Arjuna that if he is able to focus his intelligence on Him, on God, then without a doubt (samsayah), he will gain access to the heart of God. God is Love. God is Great. With great love all is possible. To know God is to love God, and this is the yogi’s purpose. To realize that purpose one must devote their whole being to that aim. As Patanjali advises, Ishwara pranidhanad va (PYS 1.23), and for those who do, success will be guaranteed absolutely (va).

Chitta means the “content of the mind”—the mind’s intelligence—and prasad means “blessed.” A blessed mind is a serene mind. Because so much of the anxiety we experience seems to us to be caused by other people—they make us mad, they act in deceitful ways, they are unfair, they are unkind, and on and on—Patanjali tells us in chapter 1.33 of the Yoga Sutra that chitta prasadanam, or serenity, is our mind’s innate state. Hey, that’s good news! We should have faith in that truth and do all we can to protect that blessed condition from defilement. Patanjali gives some advice as to how to accomplish that: be happy for those who are happy, compassionate for those who are unhappy, delighted for those
who are virtuous and indifferent to those who are wicked. If we choose to ignore this advice, we will become entrenched in our own negative emotions and be unable to remember God or devote ourselves to His service. Our intelligence will be consumed by anxiety, and we will be unable to enjoy anything in this world or in any other.

Finding fault with others is a sure way to disturb your mind and destroy your intelligence. When judgment of others arises, strive to let it go. Let God take care of things. If you remember that He is the supreme doer, you will be able to surrender and let go of your ego’s tendency to try to control the outcome of a situation. Your job is to protect the serenity of your mind. As my teacher Shri Brahmananda would say, “mind, your own business!” Follow the dictates of the yamas and relate to others with kindness, truthfulness, caring, respect and generosity. Rid your mind of the diseases of pride, envy, anger, laziness, lust, greed and gluttony. No one is saying that this is an easy task and that we can accomplish this alone, so to provide help in times of need we would be wise to contemplate the practical suggestions given to us by holy beings and do our best to put them into practice. Help is available in the form of satsang, and satsang can appear in the form of holy teachings written by holy beings, like the Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga Sutra as well as contemporary teachers, like Shyamdas.

Another meaning of intelligence that I found in the dictionary is “secret information.” I think Shyamdas thought of intelligence like this when he spoke about the importance of protecting the most secret information, your devotional bhav: “The age of struggle has arrived and can destroy everyone’s intelligence. Be careful! This Kali Yuga can swindle you, so secure your devotional mind, guarding it like you would a precious jewel. Safeguard your bhava.” (Shiksha Patra 29.1, translated by Shyamdas and Vallabhdas). The Path of Grace outlines practical means to protect one’s chitta prasadanam: only eat prasad, food that has first been offered to God, and even water should be offered before drinking; keep good association (satsang); listen to accounts of Shri Krishna’s lilas; sing His praises and always chant the refuge mantra, Shri Krishna Sharanam Mama.

As you can see, there are many sources of holy advice. It seems like if we were able to incorporate at least some of these precious jewels offered by blessed beings into our daily lives, we could experience a little serenity during these difficult times. I certainly hope so!

—Sharon Gannon

Karma Chameleon

instantkarmaLast night the doctors delivered some wonderful news to my bedside: the CMV levels in my blood are very low (below 200) which means that if I have the same results from my next blood test on Monday, by Tuesday I could be discharged.

Eight weeks is a long time to be in the hospital. In truth, though, it hasn’t been eight static weeks of horrible, or even a full eight weeks, to be exact. The first two weeks I was so disoriented and caught between sleep and pain that nothing really registered. I did, however, have moments of profound sweetness, moments when I understood the enormity of the gift I was given, moments of understanding the blessing I received to make it through a twelve hour surgery alive, and moments of comprehending where I was — at the border territory between life and death.

The second two weeks were equally as dramatic; there were so many uncertainties regarding the outcome of the transplant that I truly didn’t know if I was coming or going. The doctors looked concerned as they spoke quietly together in the corner and did their best to put on a brave face as they delivered speculative news about my recovery. As my liver stabilized and I moved further away from the date of the surgery, things went from unstable in my body, to unstable in my mind. The medications and their side effects set in, the reality of being a long-term patient became apparent, the longing to be with my husband and son were magnetized, and my inability to control my body and everything else was all too clear.

In truth, this last week has been an unexpected gift. I have remained an in-patient, yet every day I have spent several hours outside the confines of the building, even picking my son up from school and going home for a few hours on two of the days. In the evenings I return back to the hospital for my anti-viral IV and medical observations. It has been wonderful to spend some hours playing with my son and being in our home, that after this extended time away, no longer feels completely my own.

It’s strange how undergoing a major life event like a liver transplant and being away from a place or a person for a period of time can change the dynamic of the relationship. But, of course, why wouldn’t it? I mean, I’ve changed, or I feel that I have, anyway. The bottom line is that we are all changing, all the time; sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but change is inevitable.

Being at home was very comforting, as I got to engage with my son in a way that I haven’t been able to in nearly two months; but it was also a little bit daunting. Every room contained the essence of me but in a former state. The truth is, I’m not sure what the ‘me’ in my current state is, or how it was any different than the me that existed eight weeks ago, but somehow, I do feel changed. I have been on a journey that has not only enabled me to travel to my boundary between life and death, but given me a chance to see others on that same journey act and react to their boundaries. I feel more human, or at least more a part of the human condition. We are all in some way exploring our boundaries between life and death, most of us without even knowing it. Some of us cling to islands that we think are ‘safe’ or will bring us longevity such as a health regime, an exercise practice or choosing specific people to befriend. Others engage in behavior they may feel puts their lives at risk; smoking, going to places that are considered ‘dangerous’, or simply eating unhealthy foods. Whether we attach ourselves to ideas that we feel may prolong or shorten our lives, sooner or later, we are all going to die.


The truth is, what exists between here and there is far out of our control, yet there are choices we make that contribute to the final outcome.  Responsibility is a big word, and I have come to understand it’s meaning to be entwined with how we react to the circumstances that life affords us. It turns out that there’s a lot of truth to the the old saying ‘When life hands you a bowl of lemons; its up to you to make lemonade.’

For me, this has meant continuing to live my life to the fullest even while knowing I was awaiting a liver transplant. It has meant getting to know the nurses and appreciating how lucky I am to have good medical care and a clean bed to recover in even though there are a million places I would rather be than in hospital. It has meant surrendering to the fact that my compassionate family and friends have put their lives on the back burner to care for me during these past two months, and I may never find a way to return the favor or let them know how much their time and love has meant. It has meant accepting the hand that life has dealt as gracefully as possible without second guessing myself or becoming a victim. Above all, being responsible for myself, even knowing that I have no control over the cycle of life and death, has meant finding God; finding some force that I have faith in, guiding me to make the right choices. By offering everything up to this source, making choices becomes easier and understanding that my path, including the obstacles and the triumphs, has an origin and an outcome based on karma, the cause and effect of past and present actions.

In the Bhagavad Gita, life and death are described as being part of the cosmic process, even while the Self (the spirit or soul) is indestructible and immortal. The laws of karma remind us that we are responsible for what we are and whatever we wish ourselves to be, a fundamental theme of human life. There are a lot of phrases that describe karma. For example: “What comes around goes around”; or “We reap what we sow.” These phrases however, could be upsetting for many, as some people are born with a fatal disease, or born into a bad circumstance without having had the time to accumulate any karma at all.  The thing is, karma works across many lifetimes, so even if a person has been nothing but angelic in a short lifespan (I’m thinking of a baby being diagnosed with a heart tumor), something in their past life could have brought this on. At the end of the day, it is valuable time wasted to try to justify why we are in the circumstances that we find ourselves in, because we never know the whole story; an aspect of all humans is our ‘mis-knowing’, or avidya: thinking we know when we don’t. At the end of the day, the only way to find peace, knowing we are taking the right action and understanding the present moment is unfolding exactly as it was intended, is to look to God, our divine source that ultimately is in control of all the cosmic forces that place us in a given place at a given time.

In Eckart Tolle‘s book A New Earth, he reminds us, “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.”

When I do go home, whether it be on Tuesday or in another week, there will be a certain amount of looking in on my past with fresh eyes. Luckily, the past eight weeks, with all of the ups and downs and uncertainty, has also been a time of reflection, of cultivating great gratitude, and a reminder of how precious life is. It turns out that perspective and action (also of thought and word) ultimately define our lives; who we are, what we surround ourselves with and how we make decisions.

John Lennon and the Beatles were right. Instant karma is gonna get you, and all we need is love!

Back to Love

Lord_Krishna_1yat karoṣi yad aśnāsi
yaj juhoṣi dadāsi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya
tat kuruṣva mad-arpaṇam
-Bhagavad-gītā 9.27

Whatever you do,
whatever you eat,
whatever you offer or give away, and
whatever austerities you perform —
do that, O son of Kuntī,
as an offering to Me.

Being human can be a bitch. It means that no matter how wide or open our hearts, we are susceptible to the flood of emotions, the unpredictability of life, the mental tug of war that reminds us we are alive.

The past week or two have been challenging for me in the hospital because the floodgates of emotion were unexpectedly filled and opened, and the trajectory that the doctors envisioned for me was inaccurate. Just like all humans, doctors do the best they can based on the information they are given and past experiences, but the body and its internal chemical lab creates complex actions and reactions that, at the end of the day, nobody can account for, even the world’s most renowned and brilliant doctors.

While the doctors were challenged with the factual numbers of my blood trying to decide what was going wrong and why, I was challenged with the abstract questions of “Why can’t I just feel grateful and happy?” “Why can’t I get back to letting go of sadness and frustration?” “Why can’t I get back to Love?” The answer didn’t come immediately, and I had to sit with my sadness, my discomfort, my frustration, until something shifted. This is not unusual, in fact, I’ll bet if you ask ten people how they get rid of feeling any of these emotions their answer would is some way be related to time, and finding an outlet to vent those emotions. Some may say something about learning to stay; a few might even use the word ‘surrender’.

The above quote is from the ancient and renowned text called the Bhagavad Gita meaning the “Song of God.” In the text, God is in the form of Krishna, a Hindu God whom among other Awesome things is Love itself. He is talking to Arjuna, who is a warrior prince about to fight in a battle. Arjuna represents you and I; a human being who has let life take him at least somewhat unconsciously to a place where he ends up on a battlefield with people whom he knows and loves on both sides of the impending war. In a moment of clarity he wakes up and realizes he doesn’t want to fight. What will he do?

Luckily, Krishna is his charioteer and tells him he must participate in the battle. If he does, and if he is able to place all his trust in Krishna, Krishna will show him another way to live, another way to be in the world.

You and I are Arjuna, and our battlefield is the daily life we are confounded with. According to yoga philosophy, our thoughts, words and actions of this life and past lives determine the battlefield and who we confront in the war. When we come to a point that we are aware of what we think and how we behave in response to those thoughts, it also becomes easier to remember how to change our intentions and actions. This can act as a trigger to remember Krishna, or God, because at some stage in awareness building, we start to understand the only way off the battlefield is to surrender. Surrender to Something, to Someone; surrender to God. To offer our intentions and actions to God is to experience God because in the yoga philosophy, God is Love. It goes further to explain that we each have the same, limitless potential for God within us, and in fact, we are God. We are Love.

Throughout these weeks when my mind and emotion have gotten the best of me, I’ve thought a lot about God. I’ve thought about how lucky I am; I’ve also thought a lot about those who have it far worse than I do, and the wonderful aura of Love around me in the form of friends and family. As life would have it, the shift back to feeling God and Love is sometimes not as simple as it seems. When the mind gets a firm hold on emotion, surrender means learning to stay. Staying with the sadness or whatever emotions come up is like forfeiting the game of tug of war with the mind (the mind always wins). There is no opposition of force with which to initiate the game, and the ropes go slack by disengaging, by surrendering. Eventually, the ropes fall away and there is no longer a battle to fight, there is no longer a battlefield. At this moment it’s back to Krishna; back to Love.

Progressing Toward Kindness: Jivamukti Focus of the Month: November 2013

samniyama-indriya-gramam / sarvatra sama-buddhayah
te prapnuvanti mam eva / sarva-bhuta-hite ratah
Those who are able to control their senses, have equanimity of mind and rejoice in contributing to the welfare of all creatures are dear to me.
Bhagavad Gita XII.4

Sometimes we all fall into negativity and despair, particularly when the news is filled with tragedies like school shootings and senseless wars, harsh political rhetoric and greedy behavior by banks, and the atrocities we humans are committing against ourselves, other animals, the oceans, forests and the body of the planet herself bringing us all closer and closer to an environmental, physiological and psychological collapse. From one perspective, things seem to be getting worse and worse. But is that the only perspective, and do we have the power to change it, if it is?

We can look to entertainment culture to get a picture as to what is in our psyches—what fears and longings lie beneath the surface of our consciousness. For example if you read 18th and 19th century literature, you will find a lot of class struggle and emotional unfulfillment. The characters are mostly dissatisfied and feel victimized by society. But there is little, if any, mention about the real slaves of the system—the horses who are harnessed to the carriages pulling human beings to this party or that, or the cows who are tied up in the back alleys of tenement buildings anemically producing blue-tinged milk. The other animals only appear as extras, insignificant to the important stories that are being enacted between the human beings.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, war and science fiction/monster/alien films were very popular. In The Incredible Shrinking Man, the hero of the story has been shrunk down to a half-inch tall and has to battle a “giant” spider with a sewing needle. Many, if not most, of the films of that era reveal a deep mistrust of Nature and a feeling of human fragility and vulnerability in the face of Nature and other animals. The protagonists annihilate and conquer, rather than communicate, collaborate and get along. It was “us against them.”

More recently, films like The Matrix, which asks questions about the nature of reality, and novels like Cloud Atlas, which explores the concepts of karma and reincarnation, introduce characters who are empowered to work within reality as they find it to solve problems or improve their situations. It is inconceivable that works like these would have been understood and accepted in the 1950s; it would have been over people’s heads. In this regard I would say we are making good progress. The message is less “us against them” and more a reflection of shunyata (emptiness)—putting the cause of problems on the individual as opposed to the faceless other and exposing corporations and/or governments for what they are—amplified personifications of greed and boredom that arise out of ourselves. So from this perspective, there does seem to be cultural progress, and yet so many of us still feel disaffected and dissatisfied. How can we align our increasingly sophisticated understanding of the world with our emotional and spiritual bodies? The answer is through kindness.

Often when I talk about animal rights, people ask me, “Why care so much about animal abuse when there is so much human abuse in our world?” I care about animal abuse because we are all animals, and I choose not to be locked into the prejudicial system that proclaims this animal to be more worthy than that animal. Human beings are animals too—that is a biological fact—and the systematic and unquestioned abuse of non-human animals creates a cultural environment in which abuse is accepted, which in turn results in the abuse of humans. If we want to solve a problem, it is best to look for the root of the problem and change that; otherwise our efforts will be limited to the surface and the problem will inevitably recur. As my holy teacher Swami Nirmalanda said, “This picking and choosing who to love promotes schisms and prejudices and causes us to feel separate from all of life. We should be more cosmopolitan and feel ourselves as a citizen of the cosmos—a friend to all.” Kindness can lead us in that direction.

We all want to be successful. Yoga teaches that success comes to one who is friendly and kind towards others. For Yoga to happen—for us to experience freedom from the need to consume material products and exploit the Earth and other animals, for us to experience the joy of needing nothing and feeling whole, as Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati described the state of Yoga—we must explore kindness. We cannot remain tight and miserly, only doling out kindness to those whom we like or who are like us, or to those who will give us something in return. When we begin to shed the limits of our kindness, we begin to understand our potential for being the limitless beings that we really are. This is truly the great adventure: to break the self-centered chains that bind our hearts and begin to see the other as our own self. This equanimity of mind will lead to God-realization.

—Sharon Gannon

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