Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Nature of Samskaras and Conditioning

The other day I was watching my step-daughter, Madhavi, playing with her Webkinz toys. She was making them reenact her dance competition (which she had just attended the week before), complete with music, dances and cheers from the crowd. It made me remember how another time, after attending my wife's graduation ceremony, that she acted out the ceremony with her Webkinz for the next few days, even setting up a stage, making diplomas, etc.

Then I had the thought that children will act out or play according to what they're experiencing in their environments. Why do they do this? It's because they're reinforcing their experiences and strengthening those neurological pathways in their brains. In other words, they're becoming conditioned.

We've spent our whole life being conditioned. We're conditioned by our parents, peers, the environment, the society, culture, etc. A small child in India grows up learning that when you have to go to the bathroom you go out to the field with a pot of water and then you take a bath. A small child in America learns that when you have to go to the bathroom you sit on a bowl and wipe with toilet paper. They've both been conditioned to accept these practices as being "the right way" to do things, yet intrinsically neither way is right or wrong.

In the Vedic theology we have samskaras or rites of passage in which impressions are placed upon the mind and consciousness for certain major events in our lives. These samskaras leave lasting impressions within the heart and are ultimately meant for our purification and spiritual advancement.

In the same way, once we're born into this material world, we go through various mundane samskaras that leave impressions in our hearts. Conditioning is taking place, whether it's material or spiritual and whether we're aware of it or not. We grow up in our early years being conditioned by the norms and expectations of our parents and in our youth and teens we're more influenced by our peers. We follow the fads and trends in an effort to fit in. We do what other's are doing because it's accepted and seen as something beneficial and important. Sometimes this sort of blind following leads into our adult life and we find ourselves never questioning the world around us.

A major problem in today's society is this sort of blind following. We've become conditioned as a society to NOT think and to just accept the norms as the way of life. We take everything at face value: the news, the media, etc. We've become so conditioned to accept the material body as the self that we can't think beyond it. We've become conditioned to accept this material world as our home. We've become conditioned to accept birth, death, disease and old age as inevitable, harsh realities.

Repetition creates reinforcement. It's like scratching the surface of a wooden table with a needle. If you keep scratching, scratching, scratching eventually the scratch becomes very deep and embedded into the wood grain. It becomes very difficult to remove the scratch. In the same way, our material conditioning is so deep rooted that it's difficult to erase all of these illusions and negative impressions. Even devotees that have been strictly following the process for years and years still find themselves haunted by material desires or still attached to their false ego.

Just as material conditioning is taking place at every moment, we have to begin a process of spiritual conditioning. This is obviously what sadhana or daily, devotional practice is all about. It's trying to create these new, positive impressions and erase the old, negative ones. It's the process of cleansing the mirror of the heart. A difficult process indeed, but definitely possible. We just have to do it! Sometimes (more often than not) I find myself lacking the motivation to engage in the devotional practices. Obviously this is due to conditioning. If you go years without strictly chanting your rounds it becomes habitual. Habit and conditioning are practically synonymous.

So it becomes about habit, about daily patterns. It becomes about what we're repeating in our minds at every moment. We have the power to change ourselves, to transform our hearts and consciousness. That is the nature of free will. Obviously in kali-yuga great mercy is needed to make spiritual advancement, but the fact remains that we have to make the effort. Srila Prabhupada has mercifully given us everything we need to succeed, yet we still have to do our part to follow the process. And therein lies the conundrum of the living entity.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

That Which We Do Not Speak Of (Sex Life Revisited)

An astute reader of my previous post noted that it seemed rushed and that it lacked my personality. I was impressed by their ability to detect that it was indeed a rushed post. I had really wanted to post that comic strip, but also needed to be somewhere, so I cut and pasted a bunch of sastric (scriptural) quotes and at the end threw up a link for further reading. Now don't get me wrong: the quotes and link are definitely pertinent and relevant to the discussion, but it was evident that I had thrown it all together without much personal commentary or thoughts on the topic. So in this post I wanted to come back to it with a little more personality.

First off, I was surprised by "Hare Krishna Diary"'s comment on the previous post. In all of the feedback I've been getting they were the only one to feel that I was portraying brahmacari's in a mocking way or saying that ALL brahmacaris are sexual deviants. Obviously that wasn't the intention of the comic strip. The intention was that there are sometimes individual persons in the brahmacari ashram that are struggling with sexual thoughts or reflections. And the problem is: well what do we do with those desires? And how do we stop them? And of course the feeling of hopelessness and frustration that comes along with being unable to stop the powerful pushing of sex desire.

I believe it's just part of the human experience. If it wasn't such an important topic then it wouldn't appear so much in the Srimad Bhagavatam and other Vedic scriptures. My Guru Maharaja, H.H. Bhakti Tirtha Swami, was outspoken on the topic and delineated many important points on this issue in his book "Spiritual Warrior 2: Transforming Lust into Love".

When I was going through my crisis and doubts about being a brahmacari and had expressed to him that perhaps I should put on white cloth, he said to me reassuringly (paraphrasing), "One never really, completely gets rid of sex desire. It's just a matter of learning how to channel (transform) that energy." His point was that as long as we're in a material body, we'll experience such urges and pushes from the senses and mind. Part of the spiritual, devotional process is learning how to focus that energy towards Krishna and devotional service.

In my seven years as a brahmacari I had genuine experiences of being so absorbed in devotional service that thoughts of sex were completely non-existent in my mind. It really all comes down to the mind and what it's focusing and reflecting on. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita, our mind can be our greatest friend or our greatest enemy. When it's uncontrolled it's our enemy and conversely when it's controlled it's our friend.

Controlling the mind is such a paradox, because it's within our power to control it. In other words, the mind is nothing more than a tool or instrument being used by the soul. The individual soul has the freewill and the power to decide how to use the mind. We can control what it's thinking about and reflecting on.

So why does Arjuna say to Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita that controlling the mind seems more difficult than controlling the wind? (Bhagavad-gita 6.34) Because the fact is that even though we are in control of the mind, the mind is sometimes so fickle and obstinate that it overrides our intelligence. We may know the right thing to do, but still our mind urges us towards something improper. Krishna agrees and acknowledges the difficulty of controlling the mind, but says that it's possible with "constant practice and detachment" (Bhagavad-gita 6.35). And Srila Prabhupada, in his purport, says that the most important step in controlling the mind is hearing about Krishna and transcendental topics.

When the mind is engaged in attentively hearing about Krishna (sravanam), then naturally it also becomes absorbed in thoughts of Him (smaranam). That is the secret of controlling the mind. And as we become more attached to Krishna and the process of devotional service, then we become more and more detached from the material world and sense gratification. But again, it takes constant practice. We have to devote the time for hearing and chanting and remembering Krishna. It's not like we just hear one Bhagavad-gita verse and all of a sudden we're pure devotees.

The attraction to sex life is one of those things that we've been conditioned into accepting as the highest pleasure in material existence. We become like Pavlov's dog that every time it heard a bell ring it would begin to salivate, because it had been conditioned to receive a treat every time it heard a bell. So every time we see some stimulus for sex, like the attractive forms of the opposite sex, then our minds think, "Oh, here is pleasure" and we begin to reflect on enjoying sexual pleasures. No doubt there is some pleasure in the experience of orgasm, but it's a temporary, momentary chemical stimulation in the brain. But just as with any addiction, we find ourselves needing more and more of the "drug" just to feel a tiny glimmer of what we once felt in the beginning. Such a downward spiral leads to depression, despair and emptiness.

The fact is, sexual pleasure is just one more weapon in the arsenal of the Lord's illusory energy. Actually, it can be considered the main, chief weapon of maya. It's a force so powerful that it completely binds us to a materialistic, bodily conception of life. Is it impossible to over come? Of course not. Is it difficult to over come? Of course.

The main problem is not having enough desire to become completely Krishna Conscious. We still have desires separate from Krishna and pleasing Krishna's senses. Our devotion is still so mixed with desires for personal benefit and gain. We want Krishna, but we also want sense gratification. Unfortunately this is like trying to mix oil and water. They're just not compatible. As long as we desire our personal sense gratification over desiring Krishna, then to that degree we will remain in illusion and suffering.

Srila Prabhupada explains further in his purport to the Bhagavad-gita verse 6.35 that just by hearing about Krishna we become more attached to Him. We just have to follow the nine-fold process of devotional service and we'll make progress towards Krishna. I think back to some of my best days in Krishna Consciousness and it was when I was fully absorbed in the process. Now I'm lucky if I chant one round a day or read a verse from the Srimad Bhagavatam. If we're not following the process then how can we say, "This process doesn't work!" If the doctor gives us some medicine to take, but we decide not to take it, then how can we complain when our disease or suffering becomes worse? When we find ourselves being harassed and victimized by our mind and senses we have to stop and ask ourselves, "What is the quality of my sadhana (daily devotional practice)? What is the quality of my chanting and hearing?" There's almost no doubt that our suffering and misery are a reflection of our poor (or in some cases non-existent) sadhana.