These Haunting and Harassing Obscurities
Let us consider that we are all partially insane. It will explain us to each other; it will unriddle many riddles; it will make clear and simple many things which are involved in haunting and harassing difficulties and obscurities now.
― Mark Twain
The moth flies into the flame for no other reason than instinct—an effect of nature’s programming that makes even certain death impossible to resist. One theory for why this happens suggests that the infrared light spectrum emitted from a candle mimics the same light frequencies given off by the female moth’s sex hormones. The irresistible glow and provocation of the candle confuses the moth, drawing him into his imminent demise. As irrational as the moth’s tragic end seems, we might ponder if humans are also driven into conflict and suffering by powers unbeknownst to us. “What were they thinking?” is the reaction that history most elicits as we look back and wonder how man could be driven so insanely by greed, power and—yes—even sex.
According to Vedanta, an ancient tradition that is a means for examining our experience, man’s psychosis is a combination of ignorance, conditioning and impersonal natural forces that sweep through us like the changing weather. As human beings with an intellect, free will is something we all presume and yet, if we have free will, then why do people do things to the detriment of their own well-being, their loved ones and to society at large?
Can we all just pause for a moment and admit that we do things sometimes that feel a little bit off, beyond our control, or that at least escape any rational explanation? What is it that decides for us to binge-watch Netflix when we know we must get up early for work the next day? What is it that can’t stop at just one slice of pizza, at one glass of wine or maybe has us secretly browsing porn sites while our partner lies asleep next to us?
Can we all just pause for a moment and admit that we do things sometimes that feel a little bit off, beyond our control, or that at least escape any rational explanation?
And on a societal level, what is it that decides to participate in corporate global malfeasance such as fooling the public on the environmental cost of continuing to burn carbon fuel, contaminating our own drinking water, or over-fishing the very oceans we depend on for food? If we truly had free will wouldn’t we decide to never be over-weight, never become addicted to opioids or at least agree to not elect shameless politicians that create a constitutional crisis?
What the hell is going on?
Some days it’s not hard to think of human beings as a computer program. Only a program would go through the same series of motions over and over again without ever questioning what it’s doing. Only a program would repeat the same mistake over and over again in spite of repeated negative returns. Only a program would be satisfied with its ignorance. Without delving too far into the mystical, it’s as if we’re playing out algorithms authored by some divine force.
In fact, the deeper you reach into this experience, the more life reveals just how impersonal it is. So much so that if you were able to carefully observe life for many years, perhaps centuries, you might come to the conclusion that God’s creation is nothing more than a few simple levers and switches.
Society, and politics in particular, make no sense until the impersonal mechanizations of creation are seen for what they are. In fact, it’s the only way society can make sense. If it weren’t so, based on our innate aversion to suffering, we would have perfected society a long time ago and the wisdom of the ancients would firmly be situated in the hearts of all men, women and children everywhere. But nothing could be further from the truth as we become hypnotized by our smartphones and whatever is currently trending on social media. Meanwhile, the world teeters on imminent disaster from serious issues like over-consumption, nuclear proliferation and climate change. Indeed, what are these haunting and harassing obscurities? How do we unriddle these many riddles?
The Lord lives in the heart of all beings. By its power to delude it causes them to dance as if they were puppets on a string.
— Bhagavad Gita, 18:61
Historians and sociologists are forever trying to make sense of how we got here, where we are going, and the reasons for our current state. They talk about culture, beliefs, tribalism, communication, the influence of technology, and our proclivity for fantasy. But only a few suggest that we do the things we do because we are blind to reason and conditioned by impersonal forces we barely understand. Mostly this is due to the unpopularity of having such a point of view. Even if it were scientifically proven that there is no free will (as suggested by the work of physiologist, Benjamin Libet), we wouldn’t want to know about it. Mostly, because it’s an affront to the fragile ego whose flimsy foundation relies on the belief of being an independent entity fully in control.
Historians and sociologists are forever trying to make sense of how we got here, where we are going, and the reasons for our current state. They talk about culture, beliefs, tribalism, communication, the influence of technology, and our proclivity for fantasy. But only a few suggest that we do the things we do because we are blind to reason and conditioned by impersonal forces we barely understand.
In the tradition of Vedanta, one definition of maya is “beautiful, intelligent ignorance.” It’s beautiful because like a Broadway performance that makes you laugh and makes you cry, maya puts on a pretty good show. It’s intelligent because like a magician, maya enchants and fools everyone. The term ignorance, here, isn’t used to connote a lack of intelligence but rather a blindness to the truth. There are many ways to view maya and we needn’t always recognize it as some dark force out to get us. But for now, let’s focus on its ability to steer us away from the truth.
Maya is like getting your world view from an unscrupulous cable news network. As viewers of the news network, we are kept ignorant of serious issues and the real business of government officials—not because we are unintelligent, but because of the network’s strategy of concealment and projection. The unprincipled news network hides the truth from us and in turn, replaces it with its own convenient, alternative reality. The presentation is so convincing and seems so real that we never question the veracity of its reporting. At some point, not only are we totally duped, we are under its spell. These qualities of concealment and projection are how maya does its work on each of us.
The mysterious world of duality in which maya operates in is one where objects are constantly changing from one thing to another and nothing ever is what it seems. In maya’s world everything feels substantial and permanent, but on closer inspection is found to be only made of parts and in the process of coming or going.
In addition to making the world appear substantial, through the clever use of concealment and projection maya fools us by having us believe that certain objects will provide us lasting pleasure and happiness. Maya does this by hiding the negative aspects of an object and emphasizing the beneficial. We know that no object can give us permanent happiness and yet we continue to chase them ignoring the simple fact that, like a carton of milk, all objects have an expiration date. In short, we want to believe in object-oriented happiness in spite of all contrary evidence. This mostly occurs because, like everything else in the maya, these bodies and minds are changing and with them, our preferences. Familiarity results in boredom and because we’re always looking for something more, better, and different—something that will give us those initial few seconds of excitement once again—our search for the next object never ends.
Our madness is that we believe objects can fulfill us and make us feel whole despite evidence to the contrary. We repeat the same mistake over and over again chasing and grasping onto temporary bliss as if it were fundamental to our very survival. They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, and yet for us, there’s always another object, another relationship or another experience to pursue.
Another of maya’s seductive cons is its power of subject-object reversal. While most people don’t have a problem discriminating between themselves and the objects they perceive as being “out there,” where many of us struggle is discriminating between ourselves and the objects that appear within—namely, our thoughts, feelings and emotions. Maya fools everyone by having us identify with the objects that appear in the mind. Throughout the day we identify with our internal condition by telling ourselves “Now, I’m happy”…“Now, I’m bored”…“Now, I’m angry”…“Now, I’m happy again” and so on. Or we berate ourselves for having bizarre thoughts that make us feel shameful and question our sense of integrity.
Maya fools everyone by having us identify with the objects that appear in the mind.
Worse, are those thoughts and feelings that arrive in the form of a strong desire or fear because they have the potential to influence our behavior and actions in negative ways. We all have experienced being driven by uncontrollable desire or fear. This sort of manic behavior is usually what gets us in trouble and is almost inevitably accompanied by suffering. But all is not lost. Vedanta asks, “How can you be that which you know?” If I know my thoughts, feelings and emotions, logic would tell me I must not be them.
So, the first step to recovering from our insanity is to see that all thoughts (feelings and emotions included) are objects apart from me. One of the benefits of having a formal meditation practice is its ability to slow down the mind enough so that we can begin to see the rise and fall of thoughts. By doing so, we’re able to create some space between them and realize their objective quality. After some practice, we may come to the conclusion that thoughts are not “me” and that they bubble up to the surface from some unbeknownst depths only later to return the same way they came.
We mostly identify with our thoughts because of their personal nature and proximity. After all, nobody else is experiencing the same thoughts at the same time, or in quite the same manner or sequence, as I experience them. My thoughts are unique to me due to my conditioning. Furthermore, these thoughts appear to come from a control center located somewhere behind the eyes. If I identify with my body, then it’s very likely I will also identify with thoughts too. So most of our trouble is a direct result of conscious and unconscious identification with our thoughts. But let’s dig deeper and find out how thoughts operate to trick us and create unwanted tendencies and bondage—in other words, how they and other forces pull our strings.
Ignorance is hard-wired. It’s very clever. Don’t think ignorance isn’t really intelligent. It’s going to do everything it can to survive. It’s going to provide every possible doubt and rationalization and justification why the way you see it is the way it is.
Vedanta has many useful concepts to help explain the workings of the mind. One way it explains how desire and fear are born is by use of the Sanskrit term, vasana. Once you get the gist of it, it’s an extremely practical means for understanding how the mind (and maya) can drive us mad.
We desire objects (including relationships and experiences) and often become obsessed with them, but the trick to gaining back some control is to understand that joy doesn’t actually exist in objects. If objects actually contained joy, the same objects that hold you in fascination would to do the same for me. That we perceive joy from inert objects is inherently due to the mind’s persuasive powers to deceive us. To better understand our insanity we must first understand how desire and fear take form as thoughts.
By definition, a vasana is an impression. Throughout our day we encounter many objects and experiences. Every action leaves a trace or seed in the mind. Some seeds will die while others will grow to become tendencies, or even wild obsessions. All seeds require certain elements to sprout. In the case of our desires and fears, they require willing attention. If there is interest, a thought can become either a desire or a fear depending whether it’s perceived as pleasant or unpleasant. The more we think about the object of our desire or a menacing fear, the bigger it grows and the less control we have of it. At first, the desire/fear is quite small and manageable, like a sapling. We can either choose to cultivate it or let it die. The sapling only becomes a problem if it grows to be a large thorny bush, engulfing us and blocking the light, then we might need a bulldozer to take it out.
Throughout our day we encounter many objects and experiences. Every action leaves a trace or seed in the mind. Some seeds will die while others will grow to become tendencies, or even wild obsessions.
Like any well-attended garden that has a variety of species, in the mind are found a diversity of vasanas—some colorful and beneficial, and others that are weed-like and detrimental to our well-being. For example, we may have cultivated a vasana for brushing our teeth. This is considered a healthy habit, unless it means that we’re feeling guilty about not brushing ten times a day. In that case, what began as a desire to have good oral health has now evolved into a painful obsession, or a binding vasana.
Binding vasanas are deeply entrenched mental/emotional conditions that dictate our actions in negative ways. You can think of binding vasanas as mini-programs—if left unattended, they can turn into rogue programs that do damage to their host. The mind seems to become blind to its pursuits and automatically drawn to certain thoughts and actions, but when the suffering begins to outweigh the pleasure, you know you have a problem. For example, most people have a sex vasana due to nature’s need to procreate and the intense pleasure associated with it. But when certain people begin to look to you like a piece of red meat and you find yourself unconsciously doing things that are inappropriate, you know you are dealing with a binding vasana.
We all have favorable and unfavorable vasanas that we have cultivated due to our conditioning. We may have developed a food vasana, shopping vasana or smoking vasana. Vasanas only disturb us and cause havoc when they inhibit our ability to discriminate and dictate our actions. Binding vasanas only exist because we show interest in them and let them run the show. Without willing attention, a vasana is like a burnt seed with no chance of sprouting. However, some vasanas can lay dormant and spring out when we least expect it. The key is to recognize and challenge them when they do.
When we experience binding vasanas, we are in the thick of samsara. Samsara is like a whirlpool with a centrifugal force that pulls us in closer and closer to suffering. This cyclical process is sometimes referred to as samsara chakra and it keeps us bound by the constant reinforcement we provide it in the form of attention. The formula for samsara chakra is:
kama (desire) —> karma (action) —> vasana (tendency)
Kama (desire) leads to karma (action and result), which in turn, creates a vasana (tendency), which results in a desire for more of the same. The unique aspect of a cycle is there is no beginning or end. Did the desire cause the tendency, or did the tendency cause the desire? Furthermore, is it my fault that I even have a vasana for “x”? Who chooses to have a desire for anything? As young adults, did we discover our desire for sex or did it discover us? As Einstein or someone once put it: “We can will ourselves to act, but we cannot will ourselves to will.” So what is it that’s willing us to will?
See the trick? This is the power of maya. Where’s the doer? But before we get to that nagging question about free will, let’s dive a little deeper. We’re not done looking at all of maya’s hidden powers yet. Things get…well…more crazy.
The jiva (apparently) does have a limited free will or success would not be possible in the apparent reality: you can choose to eat an apple and not an orange, go somewhere or stay home. But when you investigate the matter further using the logic of Vedanta it will be clear that all your choices, likes and dislikes are programmed into you by Isvara, or the gunas.
Equally as important to observing my thoughts and knowing they aren’t “me” and recognizing my conditioned tendencies and not developing them to the point that they take full control, is the understanding of the forces that cause these phenomena to occur in the first place. Vedanta has a clever way of explaining how both our external and internal worlds come to be. Once you understand how the system of the trigunas (the three energies) works, you can begin to see the very source of our haunting and harassing obscurities.
The gunas are a simple and elegant way of explaining the forces of nature. The same forces that create the apparent outer world, including our body, are the same forces that create the apparent inner one, including our thoughts. Ultimately, these powers are what maya uses to create, sustain and destroy/recycle all objects.
The gunas are a simple and elegant way of explaining the forces of nature. The same forces that create the apparent outer world, including our body, are the same forces that create the apparent inner one, including our thoughts.
The three powers consist of sattva (knowledge), rajas (energy) and tamas (matter). To grow a great towering oak, you first need sattva, that is, the “program” encapsulated in an acorn that knows when and how to grow it. Without this intelligence, there would be no growth (and no acorn). We may not be able to see this knowledge using our senses, but we can infer that it exists. Of course, the acorn will never evolve to be a tree if it doesn’t have the energy to do so. So, rajas provides the vitality for growth, movement and sustainability. Lastly, we have tamas which is responsible for the actual material or matter that makes up an oak. Tamas represents the inert physical contents of the oak. Thus, one way to summarize the contents of maya’s world is by understanding it to be knowledge-energy-matter.
Like seeing an oak in an acorn, our own inner condition is a microcosm of our outer one. In other words, the nature of the mind is the same gunas expressing themselves inwardly. Throughout our day, we might experience a variety of feelings including, clarity, anxiety and dullness as the gunas take shape and one guna takes prominence over the other. Sattva brings feelings of clarity, peace and pleasure; rajas—passion, desire and restlessness; and tamas—dullness, lethargy, and gloom. And like the sky above, these powers come and go through us like the changing weather.
Rajas helps kick us out of bed in the morning and bring home the bacon, but is also associated with maya’s quality of projection. A mind with too much rajas lusts for objects and exaggerates an object’s qualities. Not only does too much rajas create anxiety and aggression, it diminishes our ability to discriminate and make wise choices. People who are too rajasic act first and think later. They are reactive and project their subconscious content onto the world.
Tamas also deludes its host but instead, with its ability to conceal. Tamas is like a dense cloud that blocks the light and dulls the mind. Sometimes we welcome tamas, for example when we want to relax with a glass of wine or fall asleep. Where tamas becomes problematic is when it hides the truth. Tamas can conceal the negative aspects of objects we desire. People who are primarily tamasic are unmotivated and always looking for the easy way. Feelings of fear and doubt are predominant. Tamas is also responsible for our proclivity to believe in fantasy.
Mania is total rajas, and depression is total tamas. Someone suffering from bipolar disorder has rajas and tamas operating with little sattva. Like bipolar disorder, these two gunas often work together. When the host is exhausted by too much rajas, tamas kicks in or is induced usually in the form of some kind of numbing device like TV, alcohol, or drugs. Much of the world powers up with caffeine (rajas) in the morning and powers down with booze (tamas) at night. Many of us are prescribed anti-anxiety medication (tamas) because we can’t handle the stress (rajas) of everyday life. It’s a sign of the times that cannabis (tamas) is now legal in many parts of the United States. But it’s not just in the U.S. where too much rajas is an ever-present problem. Extreme rajas driven by technology and rabid consumerism is like a virus that has now spread to all parts of the globe.
The problem isn’t that rajas and tamas exist, but that we are unable to manage them. Again, we need all three gunas by various degrees in order to operate in the world. Most people are unconscious of these impersonal forces. They assume life’s roller coaster (with a predominance of rajas and tamas) is who they are. However, there are many things we can do to manage the gunas. First and foremost, is to not identify with them and see them as the natural phenomenon they are. In order to do this, we must be mindful of our thoughts and current emotional state. Once we’re able to observe our inner state, we can seek a balance, changing our inner condition by avoiding certain thoughts and circumstances, while encouraging others.
Guna management is greatly affected by what we take in via our senses and can be summarized by the truism: You are what you eat. Everything we consume affects us in ways beneficial or harmful. This includes thoughts, speech, relationships, media, work, entertainment, food, drugs and more. Guna management starts with what you put in your mouth, eyes, and ears. Viewed from this perspective, junk food isn’t just a bag of greasy chips, it’s also all the other cheap and nutritionless content we ingest through our senses on a daily basis. You know it when you’ve had too much because rajas or tamas begin to kick up in unpleasant ways. So we try to avoid certain substances, relationships and activities that we know make us feel off (too rajasic or too tamasic) and welcome those that make us feel whole (sattvic—calm, composed and at ease).
Once we’re able to observe our inner state, we can seek a balance, changing our inner condition by avoiding certain thoughts and circumstances, while encouraging others.
When we feel especially full of desire or fear, we try to understand the causes and if not, we simply let it pass, not taking ownership of it. Sometimes there is no cause to be found and the only thing to do is to let it run its course. Or perhaps, we do our best to counter our agitation by strategically using a little rajas to counter too much tamas (like going to the gym), or a little tamas to counter too much rajas (like going for a walk in nature).
In the end, our well-being may depend on how objectively we are able to view the world. If we’re able to recognize that there is no “inner world” or “outer world”—that it’s all just one world with the same forces at work—we can begin to come to terms with our condition and begin to relax.
I believe we are puppets with perception, with awareness. Sometimes we can see the strings. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation.
— Social psychologist, Stanley Milgram’s character in the film “Experimenter”
It’s inevitable at this point that one begins to wonder about that oft-debated topic, free will. You might ask, “If I’m not my thoughts, not my feelings, not my likes and dislikes, not my conditioned tendencies, and not the internal forces I experience—then who or what is in control?” According to Vedanta, that depends on where you’re standing. Because if you’re asking the question as a person, you do have free will and should exercise your intellect and ability to choose in order to shape your destiny in ways that are dharmic (in harmony with nature). However, if you’re asking God, you have no free will. Everything is already pre-programmed into the field of experience, it’s all just cause and effect and any control you believe you have is just an illusion. But Vedanta tells us there is also another point of view—that which is the essence of who you are: consciousness.
As mentioned previously, most people believe they have a control center located somewhere behind the eyes in the frontal cortex. Mostly this belief occurs because the majority of our sense instruments (eyes, ears, nose, mouth) are located on our head. If the eyes and ears were instead located on our feet, we might believe that the control center was further down the body somewhere. Nevertheless, if we earnestly try to find the “control center” we cannot actually find it anywhere. There is no control center to be found, because as previously implied, we are not really in control. Furthermore, we are not even that which is being controlled! We are like puppets with perception. We know we are having an experience called “life” and that in this life there is a person who was born, grew up, went to school, found a job, got married, and so on. But we now see that what appeared to be a person and his or her life, was really just a play of impersonal forces. And indeed, life is just that—a funny play. Who we imagine ourselves to be is just a story based on past experiences and preferences. On the other hand, what is it that has observed this person for so long? What is it that never changes and has watched this life like a movie? Because if I’m not that which is known (e.g. my thoughts), then I must surely be that which knows. And I am! I am that I am.
What this means from the perspective of the person is I needn’t just follow my program and submit to my suffering as an individual with certain tendencies, likes and dislikes, and a disposition for binge-watching Netflix. We only suffer from that which we don’t understand. In other words, these “haunting and harassing obscurities” can only disturb us when we remain ignorant of them. Which brings us to the last point—We have only “lost it” when we no longer use these intellects to be inquisitive or seek an understanding of our experience. The best protection against these haunting and harassing obscurities will always be curiosity and a want of knowledge. Indeed, we may be puppets, but we’re puppets with awareness. And that makes all the difference.
The teachings of Vedanta not only show us the truth, but perhaps equally as important, they let us see the nature of ignorance (that which veals the truth). On one hand, it’s wonderful to learn that you’re the one, indivisible consciousness—the Self—and that you are, and will always be okay. On the other hand, it can be painful to watch family, friends and the rest of humanity be driven by forces they hardly understand. So prevalent is ignorance that even if you were to attempt to rid the world of it, you could never do so in a gazillion years. It would be like cleaning the streets of New York City with a toothbrush. There is simply too much of it and maya is constantly generating more!
It could be said that a certain loss of innocence comes with the realization that this world is maya’s—that maya rules over all. Today's authoritarian types think they are the world’s strong men, that they have dominion, but it’s really maya that does. The same could be said for certain corporations as well, but this is maya’s world, not theirs. Maya is so clever, maya reigns over all of man and yet almost no one suspects its supremacy. Maya doesn’t need armies to control its citizens like despots do because maya works stealthily from within where it hides the truth and projects the false.
It can be a shock to discover that the world is driven by unconscious forces. But every time we become disgusted with the world and with man’s follies, we must remind ourselves that this isn’t our world to judge or correct. We, too, are a product of this world. People can’t help they are blind, driven mad by their desires and fears. Who would willingly choose to be blind and afraid? People have no idea of the impersonal powers that make them "dance like puppets on a string.” We are all puppets in this tragicomedy.
The world is crazy, it’s mad from ignorance. That our species has evolved this far is miraculous given all the opportunities for error on a massive scale. Just like in the Bhagavad Gita, there’s a war going on here and yet, only a handful are aware of the silent battle that is playing out in the minds of all men, women and children. Only a handful will stand up and fight with weapon in hand as Arjuna did. Only a handful will recognize that which binds them and commit to slaying it at every opportunity. Arjuna’s fight is our fight. It’s our fight to understand that which diminishes us in ways we can’t see and in ways that inhibit our ability to live peacefully and happily. It’s our duty to gain the knowledge necessary to combat our own ignorance and wield it knowing that in the end, our suffering was all just a misunderstanding; that we were always fine and just needed someone to show us what should’ve always been obvious.