At a coffee shop in Rishikesh, an animated discussion was in progress. “ After almost 20 years of reading all possible books on spirituality, I am very confused. I still have not found the Atma. These gurus are just out to make a quick buck. All I have gained is confusion and lost some money. I feel really disillusioned.”
Not one to be left behind, his friend added that ‘Self help books are so boring. I can almost predict what each of them is going to say. ”
Spotting a Sadhvi who had just walked in to meet the owner, he tentatively asked “Can you recommend some book on spirituality? I don’t want to go to a guru.”
Sadhvi smiled and said – “Before I recommend something, can you please tell me, what exactly are you looking for? “
He decided to put the Sadhvi to a test and asked her, “ Despite reading so much and seeing many YouTube videos, I am restless. Why is that so?. “ He thought that if she had an understanding of the problem, then it is likely that she will have some solution in sight.
The Sadhvi said, “ I am happy to see that you are getting a sense of the fundamental problem of us human beings. Because of being self conscious about how we look, how we are, what we have, we also happen to self judge. The self judgment is based on who we have taken ourselves to be. It is good that you are restless because you will seek to end it. Many people escape from their restlessness into mindless entertainment, anything that can numb the self judgement. You are not doing that, which is admirable.”
It was his turn to be surprised and wonder whether she was making fun of him. He was confused, disillusioned and restless and she understood it and was almost praising him for being so. Weird!
Sadhvi continued, “The experience of disillusionment is very common to many people who read one self help book after another, jump from one ashram to another, size up one guru after another. If the searching yields a result that works – a result that puts an end to the search, the search has fulfilled itself. If the search results in only disillusionment and boredom, clearly something more is required.”
He thought that she made some sense. It was a relief that she was not seeking a disciple! “Tell me more.” he said relaxing in his chair.
“Self help books on spirituality often work like self medication. If the issue is minor, self medication may work. However if the issue is serious then self medication may cause more harm than good. Wisdom lies in understanding when self medication works and when self medication does not, and to seek somebody who can help. “
“Self help books or even these how-to YouTube videos will teach one skills (how to mend a bicycle, how to cook gourmet food etc.), may offer knowledge and even help with some changes in disposition. It can teach one overall competence in getting things done. However to discover who I am or the Atma, I need a means of knowledge that helps me discover the reality.”
“When it comes to self growth, wisdom lies in understanding the nature of the human problem. ‘That I am basically dissatisfied and despite my many pursuits, I am not good enough’ is an unspoken human conclusion.”
“All self help books are carriers of knowledge that has been already been gathered or discovered. Books on psychology, physics or biology will present what has been discovered. They don’t produce knowledge. To see myself as a person clearly, I need a clear mirror (neither convex nor concave) as well as clear eyesight. The mirror needs to be free from dust and my vision has to also be normal or normalised with spectacles. Vedanta is that word mirror, a means of knowledge which when used produces knowledge by revealing what is, who I am. It does that by taking away the ignorance surrounding I-the person.“
He felt that he could speak his mind and thought aloud, “Ok, so maybe one can read the latest bestseller on Vedanta? “
“Maybe there‘s an app?”
The Sadhvi said, “Do you want to understand why this self help book reading orientation will not lead you to self knowledge? This self help book reading orientation is embedded and entrenched in an I-can-figure-out-anything attitude. It is a very positive and helpful attitude to have for any kind of knowledge, but not for Vedanta.”
“Vedanta that is a means of knowledge has to be wielded by a person who knows his or her reality. Why? Because it is in the form of words. Known words are handled in an extraordinary way.”
Not one to give up, he started listing the merits of self help books “What I like about these books is I can open any page at any time, depending on mood and inclination. I can shut it or even throw it away, if I don’t like it. I can imagine, play with ideas, read at my own leisure.”
Sadhvi looked amused, “Hmm…So reading can be subject to like, dislike and mood ? My likes and dislikes may get strengthened. How will that help anyone? Like and dislike is what is convenient to me. The truth is that Reality is not a matter of convenience. If what is in front of me is a coffee cup, I cannot wish it to be an elephant or a mouse. It is what it is. The principle of Gravity is not a matter of convenience. It is what is. Vedanta is about understanding my reality as free from limitation.”
“The one who reads, naturally has his own views about the subject matter and will see what he reads from that frame of reference. We know this to be a fact because if we check with the author what his intention was in writing and how the reader has perceived it, we know there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. The purpose of communication is achieved, when what he/she intended is clearly understood, nothing short of that.”
The moment a person’s notions are challenged, when one is reading a spirituality self help book, with no access to a guru, he/she will generally keep it away because we don’t like our opinions being challenged. That’s how most of us are. We want to ‘feel good’ all the time. Self growth does not happen for these wishy washy feel gooders. For sanity we need to be in touch with reality. Only a sane person can find lasting fulfillment.”
With some reluctance, he said “So, you mean that the reader could be subjective and selective… I had never thought about it like this.”
“Well, the good news is that the same person can be more objective, in touch with reality, if the person listens to a traditional guru. Please understand that self help books help upto a point after which one must find a traditional guru. I wish that Bhagavan’s grace be with you for your pursuit of yourself.” Saying so, the figure of orange walked away into the crowd.
As the dappled sunlight filtered through the trees and into the coffee shop, he felt that some clouds of doubt had departed for good.
Om Tat Sat
~ Swamini Brahmaprajnananda Saraswati teaches Gita, Sanskrit and Vedic chanting in Mumbai.