By Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami
Movies often depict a son or daughter who, now an adult, holds deep-seated hard feelings toward one or both parents for things that happened while growing up. For example, in one emotional film scene, a daughter rattles off a long list of unhappy interactions with her mother: “When I was ten years old, you did this to me, and then on my twelfth birthday that happened. When I was fifteen, you said this.… When I was twenty, I brought a boy home and you were unkind to him. When I was twenty-two, …”
Piling up childhood reactions is as natural as it is debilitating. As grown-ups, we can continue adding to our subconscious stockpile of you-did-this-to-me resentments. Recently a man who was filled with resentment told me about how unfairly his business partners had treated him. His mind was totally absorbed in the past: “One partner cheated me by doing this four years ago. Two years ago another partner did that; and last month this happened!”
Did the son or daughter demonstrate any good feelings toward the parents? Did the businessman like or respect his partners? No. There were only disturbed feelings between them. There was no affection; it was “unaffection.” Was there attachment to the hurtful memories? Yes, powerful clinging to the past and frequent mental rehashing of unsavory events.
I call this common condition “unaffectionate attachment.” It’s a state of mind filled with bitterness, misunderstandings, bad memories and even grudges. Anyone can fall into this abyss. Some live there throughout life. On the spiritual path, our goal is to remain free of such burdens. So, if we become overwhelmed by past acrimonies, we need to learn how to extract ourself.
My Gurudeva, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, emphasized the art of working with the mind’s natural tendencies as a fundamental part of spiritual life. “When the aspirant is able to meet ordinary happenings and respond to them in the effortless wisdom born of detachment, that indicates that his striving is genuine. When he is able to encounter conditions that send ordinary people into states of disappointment or discouragement and when his emotional nature indicates mastery over these lesser states of consciousness, he is well on his way toward filling the gaps of a natural growth of the instinctive vehicles—body, emotions and intellect.”
To maintain equilibrium on the path, we need to clear the subconscious mind of such negative attachments. Significant “unaffectionate attachments” in the subconscious will cause the mind to constantly dwell on the past. It’s not hard to see how this hampers our creativity and progress in the present, diminishing our quality of life. One of the victims is our ability to meditate. Unresolved emotional issues in the subconscious can make it impossible to quiet the thinking process when sitting for meditation. In his Yoga Sutras, sage Patanjali describes these blockages as externalizing samskaras that need to be transformed. My guru gave specific practices for removing them from the mind. The primary method he gave is vasana daha tantra, known as journaling in Western terminology. He defined it as writing down the events that trouble us and then burning the paper in an ordinary, non-ceremonial fire. Watching our concerns, our hurts and negative recollections disappear in the flames is cathartic, impressing the mind with the possibility of riddance of past traumas. We can even write and burn letters to people we hold animosity against. This simple practice is effective in removing from the subconscious mind unaffectionate attachments to past experiences. It needs to be said that we don’t forget those past hurts and unfairnesses. Rather, the negative emotion is dissolved, released or burned away. Watching the paper burn is helpful in achieving this result. For deep-seated hurts, the writing and burning may need to be repeated several times.
For powerfully traumatic memories, such as being beaten frequently by a parent, simply writing it down may not be sufficient. The negative impression, or samskara, may be so deep that you have to do something physical to achieve release. For such instances, Gurudeva has given the flower prayashchitta, or penance. It consists of putting up in the shrine room a picture of the person you are resenting and then every day for 31 days placing a flower in front of the picture while sincerely forgiving him or her.
What happens when we perform practices like vasana daha tantra and the flower penance? We arrive at stage two, “unaffectionate detachment.” We still don’t like the person, but at least we are not thinking negatively about them all the time. We have partially detached ourselves. We may have no fondness, no love, but we are no longer dwelling endlessly on the past, no longer resentful. We have understood the situation.
Returning to our movie example, in the next scene the mother responds to the daughter’s outburst, “I did the best I could in raising you.” Suddenly the daughter accepts that her mother had her own challenges and was not perfect. She realizes it was unrealistic for her to expect a perfect childhood. They had now reached an understanding that released the attachment. But, still, it didn’t awaken affection. They maintained a cold relationship.
Of course, that is not the goal. The goal is “affectionate detachment.” Early in his ministry, Gurudeva gave a deceptively simple method to reach this next level: “The best way to keep the actinic (spiritual) force flowing through the physical body is practicing the art of giving—doing little things for others you have not been asked to do.”
That’s not difficult, right? Try it yourself and you will find that, yes, it does work. It actually takes us from unaffectionate detachment to affectionate detachment. It builds up love and good feelings toward those to whom we had hard feelings in the past. Of course, one act of giving doesn’t change everything. But repeated over and over again—offering little gifts, doing things for others that they don’t anticipate—changes the feelings between people. It creates more love, more kindness and warmth.
This is an important practice to incorporate as a perpetual behavior, because life always gives us the opportunity to develop new hard feelings. Harmony is something we have to work at the rest of our life, because we will be interacting with people the rest of our life. For those on the spiritual path, getting along with people, ensuring that new hard feelings don’t develop, is an essential part of karma management.
The resultant harmony is empowering, but Gurudeva takes it even further. He says that giving “eventually leads to greater actinic understanding.” That means we not only have good, kind feelings about others but we also understand their nature better. Part of the reason we don’t get along with some people is that we don’t understand them. A natural assumption is that “everyone is like me.” In reality, you may not meet anyone just like you your whole life. People are different, sometimes very different. If we are unaware of fail to appreciate such differences, misunderstandings and hard feelings can arise. Our attitudes and interactions naturally improve when we are sensitive to the differences, needs and limitations of others.
When the attitude of affectionate detachment is the daily norm, not only do we have kindly feelings toward others; we also understand them in an intuitive, actinic way. It is not an intellectual analysis. It is an intuitive sense of who a person is, what karmas he or she has brought into this life. And because we appreciate that person’s nature, we make allowances and get along with them better.
That completes the process of achieving affectionate detachment. We start with unaffectionate attachment and then move to unaffectionate detachment. From there we move to affectionate detachment, which comes in two stages. The first stage is expressing more love and kindness towards others. The second stage is understanding others more clearly, cognizing the nature of family, friends and acquaintances in an intuitive way, from the inside out, and therefore loving them more and being able to get along with them better. The deeper truth is that we are learning about ourself the whole time, and our inner changes are reflected in our relationships.