Breath of Clarity


In his song titled Edge of Desire, John Mayer conveys the pain an immature soul endures while trying to fulfill a craving for love. Mayer describes the frustration as an overwhelmingly endless cycle, “just a great figure eight, a tiny infinity,” and seeks to venture beyond this realm of thirst. Mayer represents the voice of individuals on the verge of hopelessness, shrieking, “for all of our trying, we still end up dying, how can it be?” The artist suffers from immense confusion, and searches for a new path to spiritual well-being. The Hindu texts from class illustrate why Mayer’s original approach to life is so flawed. In all three selections, death is defined as a blissful state of spiritual existence, following an experience of extreme physical agony. Essentially, death without rebirth signifies the end of ignorance and the soul’s readiness to transcend the limits of existence on earth. In order to reach this state, the Hindu texts hold different perspectives on the most effective way to cope with unfulfilled desire based on the ultimate goals of each doctrine. The Rig Veda values the material world, describing people worshiping the divine in order to build connection with the gods and receive good fortune in return. In contrast, the Upanisads view self-awareness as more powerful than the gods. They are more concerned with the quest for truth through detachment from an individual self-image. Similarly, the Yoga Sutra advocates meditation as a strategy to achieve kaivalya (spiritual liberation) and is focused on isolating purusha (spirit) from prakrti (matter). The people who attain eternal liberation from life reach a level of consciousness where their purpose of life is fulfilled and there is nothing more to pursue.

The foundation of difference in these theories lies in the distinct ways each viewpoint defines what spiritual freedom entails. In the Vedic tradition, follows focus on developing a strong sense of humility of their existence in relation to the gods. Humans devote their whole lives articulating their affection for the divine. The poets were especially well respected in society because they had the strongest connection with the higher power. They were viewed as “royal patrons” who “provided the praise poetry that the patron needs to put the Gods in his debt” (9). In the Rig Veda, death indicated liberation from this debt, the ultimate gift that the rewards followers who lived a life of devotion. In this case, death is a relief of pressure to continue to impress the forces whose approval was needed to survive. Furthermore, the Vedic tradition illustrates its humble attitude in their account of creation because it encourages the habit of questioning and embraces uncertainty. In the creation hymn, the last verse does not come to a conclusion but ends with a question. The hymn explains that before thought was created life was simplistically beautiful because “there existed neither the airy space nor heaven beyond” (X.129.1). It was beautiful because there was no divine or human beings, which made it so there was no division. So, the source of desire prominent in the Rig Veda was not an issue. It wasn’t until “from thought evolved desire,” that “poets found the connection of the existent in the nonexistent” (X.129.4). The concept of the superior divine was created and the desire to establish a reciprocal relationship with the gods was born. From this original desire came everything in existence. So, in the Rig Veda, essentially, creation is the cessation of eternal human bliss and death is the gateway to liberation

The authors of the Upanisads define spiritual freedom as nirvana (extinction of the self), when a soul becomes established in brahman (the cosmic self as an essence of the whole). When human beings attain knowledge of the metaphysical self, their essence of self dissolves to become nothingness. Knowledge propels an individual to be liberated free from desire based on the understanding of ultimate reality. The Upsanisads describe it as “this Immense Being” with “no limit or boundary and a single mass of perception” (2.4.12). The key component of the doctrine is to not think of oneself as final and absolute. Getting trapped in the conventional self, in terms of both mind and body, causes pain. Instead of “drowning in water,” a human being who recognizes the ultimate reality “will have an ample supply” (2.4.2). The conventional self is being sacrificed to meditate, leaving behind attachment to body.

The Upanisads make sacrifices by rejecting personal finite desires, in search of ultimate liberation instead of temporary fulfillment. The Upsanisads articulate the classical theory of karma (action), to explain the danger of desire because “a man who’s attached goes with his action, to that very place to which his mind and character cling. Reaching the end of his action, of whatever he has done in this world from that world he returns” (4.4.6). When a person dies, desires and motivations within don’t die completely and reactions to karma from earlier lives still exist for rebirth. Whatever unfulfilled desires at death bring individual back to life. The individual becomes immortal and attains Brahman “when those desires lucking in one’s heart become banished” (4.4.7). If you see yourself as Brahman then there’s nothing left to desire because you are everything. There is no sense of incompleteness.

The authors of the Yoga Sutra convey spiritual freedom as not the destruction of individual existence, but rather a resilient state of tranquility, “invulnerable to the chaos of mental and physical stimuli” (17). The soul experiences “an interior freedom from the insidious cycles of desire and delusion, recognizing the paradoxical nature of reality is fundamental to breaking the connections between fragments of experience and obliterating the constructs of memory (4). It is essential to view humans as observers of the mind, and witnesses to experiences not active participants. The meditative practice allows human beings to break habitual workings of thought that trap them in misconceptions. According to the Yoga Sutra, “cessation of turnings of thought comes through practice and dispassion, […] a sign of mastery over the craving for anything material” (12-15). In order to attain an empty mind, humans need to be able to restrict their tendency to desire. The purpose of yoga is to “attenuate the forces of corruption” (44). Desire is created when individuals become attached to pleasure and people suffer when they cannot recreate that pleasure. Experiences tie spirit to the physical body and make people confused with their personal identity, “craving for permanence in a universe of impermanence” (46). When humans work to maintain a way of thinking in order to establish an identity, it interferes with the natural course of the impermanent universe. The spiritually liberated individual is not attached to the desire to live, and when humans no longer try to pursue eternal existence on earth, they can attain nirvana.

In yoga, the reason why individuals must become empty of their identities is so that everything external is not seen through our sense of self. When consciousness is void, the Yoga Sutra describes the mind as “a flawless crystal, it reflects, without distortion, the color of any object presented to it” (40). The essence of the mind is intrinsically pure, and by seeing that nothingness is the fundamental reality, individuals see it’s their reality and nothing can contaminate it. The clutter in the mind that obstructs people from awareness is no longer present. So, as a result, individuals can connect with natural beauty because we are not over consumed with desires that would otherwise be at the forefront of their minds. Even not necessarily ceasing the racing thoughts, but at least understanding the content of them, can allow people to identify desires that they can start to make an effort to combat them.

The Hindu texts covered thus far show that life is a path humans must follow with dedicated effort. In the modern world, many humans don’t prioritize spiritual well-being over worldly desires and often feel unsatisfied as a result. Individuals who are unconscious of their thought-patterns can experience a distorted view of reality, comparable to a mental disease (such as schizophrenia) in the modern era. Failure to live in the present moment interferes with the mind’s ability to perceive reality accurately. Indian literary philosophers explain memory as a recollection of pleasure or sadness, whether it was conceived internally or actually occurred externally. The Yoga Sutra claims that “memory is an intuitive insight into the past that transcends personal experience into the imaginative universe” (16-17). Individuals who are caught up with past experiences may not even recall the actual experience correctly because of the impact emotions had on the construction of the memory. The desire to return or erase the past takes individuals away from a clear orientation of reality. Reflecting on my analysis of these texts, it doesn’t seem worth it to compromise eternal mental confusion and chaos for the pursuit of temporary desires. The understanding of death as a potential stepping-stone on the path to liberation prompts me to live with a more thoughtful intention.