Author: Swami Sitaramananda DATE: Feb 15, 2017 Comments: 0
Finding Faith Over Fear
What is faith in God? In Vedanta philosophy Brahman is the Absolute, or God-consciousness. Brahman is beyond the mind’s concepts. Ishwara is the highest form of God the mind can conceive. It is the personal form of God. Examples of Ishwara are Jesus Christ, Buddha, or Krishna.
Faith in God springs from an inner feeling that there is something greater than you, a supreme being that indwells one’s essential spirit. When one is enriched with abiding faith one is able to recognize God’s grace operating in all things. We are on a journey of self-discovery to uncover the truth of who we are, a journey guided by faith. We can think of faith is the bridge that carries us from one experience of grace to the next.
Fear exists when we don’t know the Self (the Atman). Until we have such knowledge of the Self from our own direct experience, we must rely on faith in order to progress on the spiritual path. The more we progress and the greater our connection with the Atman, the more faith we will have. Over time we will need less faith as faith is gradually replaced by knowledge of the Self. Ultimately faith is replaced by direct experience of the Self. It is then we can say, “I know.”
Knowledge can be glimpsed intuitively, as I experienced in my earlier days as a social worker in Montreal. I observed that the people around me were unhappy and miserable. Even when I was able to help improve their circumstances, they didn’t seem to be any happier. But somehow, I had the thought that there must be a place that wasn’t like this. I went searching, thinking at first it must be outside of the city, so I moved to the country. I found it was not in the country either, and guessed it must be in the ashram. It soon became apparent it wasn’t even in the ashram. Where is this Satchidananda, or knowledge? Of course, it resides inside of us, but it is a long hard journey to find it, a journey that must be sustained by considerable faith.
In the beginning of our journey we lack experience. Faith keeps us going, though we do not really have a clue where. This is why we need a teacher to help show us the way.
What is Fear?
Fear is a very strong primitive emotion, present even in animals, as it serves a very basic purpose – it helps us to survive. If we were Self-realized we would know there is no danger to our survival, since we are not the individual body that we think we are. Fear arises out of an external view of reality. Things that appear unfamiliar or situations beyond our immediate understanding, cause fear in us. Fear creates imaginations of darkness, of falling and distorts the mind. Fear is therefore based in unreality, in Maya. It comes from our attachment, our grasping on to illusory things and beliefs. Being attached means we are stuck, bogged down; fear is the opposite of letting go.
When we are fearful, we become paralyzed and lose our faculties. We freeze, unable to do anything to solve our problem. There was a time years ago, when I sat on the couch watching a horror movie on TV. I was so scared! I could not do anything, not even think to move three feet to turn off the set because I was paralyzed with fear. This is a small example but illustrates the point; even the simplest situations that arise can stop us in our tracks because of illusory thoughts.
Anxiety is even worse than fear, because unlike fear we cannot identify its source. Anxiety is fear that has no name. With anxiety, there is no creativity, no productivity, we are depressed and our minds lose the capacity to think clearly.
Now consider the analogy in which the sun is the Atman and anxiety is a storm of clouds covering the sun. There are days when clouds fill the sky and we can’t see the sun. Yet we know it’s there behind the layer of clouds. From time to time as the clouds pass overhead we may catch a glimpse of the sun’s brightness or feel its warmth for a moment. In the same way the Atman is always shining within us, untouched by the clouds of fear and anxiety that we experience.
We must learn to clear away the impurities of the mind, the clouds of fear that obscure the light of the sun. We must have faith to seek out the sun when the mind experiences darkness. Whether we are dealing with specific fear or general anxiety, we need to cultivate the courage to face our illusions and be who we really are. We need to have the courage to remove our wrong beliefs and identifications, our thinking that we are a certain thing, when really all those beliefs and identifications are simply attachments and not who we really are, the eternal Atman.
There are two classical analogies to help us understand the nature of our illusions. The first is called the Snake and the Rope. A man is walking in the darkness and sees a snake in the path. He is frightened and immediately runs and gets his friend who has a lamp. When they shine the light on the snake it is seen for what it is, a rope.
Another story is told of a man who is fearful of dogs. One day he is walking through a narrow alley and he sees a dog in the distance and hears barking. He looks more closely and sees the mouth open and the teeth. This is an aggressive dog. He becomes alert and afraid, but this is the only path he can take. He begins to walk forward slowly. The barking is getting louder, the dog appears to be facing his direction. The man’s fear grows more and more. He begins to sweat and shake. Then, as he moves even closer he realizes something. This dog is not a real dog, but only a statue of a dog. This dog is made of stone.
These analogies illustrate the mind’s power to superimpose its own illusions on top of what is really there. We see a snake instead of a rope. Why? Because some condition or past experience has influenced the mind to believe it sees a snake, thereby creating fear (through association). When we shine a light on the snake and see it to be a rope we are released from our self-created fear. Likewise, when we realize the true nature of the dog to be stone our fear vanishes instantly.
Through superimposition we are creating our reality. We attach our meanings, ideas and conditions to people, situations and objects. Our practice is to separate ourselves from these illusions and realize the true nature of our Self, the Atman. Realization of the Self replaces fear. Remember, before realization of the Self we function from a place of faith. If there is no faith then we live in the dark believing everything we see to be real.
When we react to fear we operate out of a limited consciousness. We have forgotten that the sun is shining beyond the clouds. Fear feeds on past experiences that have no independent reality. Fear and worry cause us to feel overwhelmed or limited. As a result, we identify ourselves as a victim. We have become powerless to express our potential. We grow attached to ideas about ourselves, other people and the world around us. This type of suffering comes from a kind of ideological fanaticism born of spiritual ignorance.
Transforming Fear into Faith
To shift consciousness from the past to the present we practice meditation. We engage the intellect and channel the emotions with the courage to face our illusions. Here are guidelines for transforming fear into faith:
What not to do:
1) Avoid negative company with those who believe in the wrong things. This is the surest way to kill your faith and increase your fear. Therefore, avoid negative people. This includes media as negative company, as well as internet gossip sites (“Myspace, mywhatever”).
2) Following the Yamas: Do not be angry or violent. Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not put your faith in the senses. Sensual pleasures of food and sex are distractions from the spiritual path as are material things. Live a simple life; the more one depends on material objects the more fear one will have.
What to do, (in addition to the conscious examination and removal of our wrong beliefs (already discussed), including three types of faith:
1) Have faith in one’s Self. The Higher Mind (higher faculties) has the power to work its way through our problems; we must have faith that God only gives us challenges we can handle. We also have faith in the capacity to realize the Self. Faith to move beyond the fear of shining in our own true light.
2) Faith in a teacher and the practices he or she prescribes. The teacher must be an embodiment of the teaching; one who says, “do what I say, not what I do” is not an effective teacher. We have to know that we do not know. Move beyond our pre-conceived ideas of ourselves, teacher and teachings. Then, just practice.
3) Faith in the scriptures, where we get the observances of the Niyamas, exhorting us to practice purity, contentment, austerity and self-surrender. The practice of austerities (Tapas) disciplines the mind. Self-surrender means accepting what is; letting go and letting God’s will prevail. Let it be. Even if we are behaving rightly, we still have to bear the consequences of past actions, and have faith that eventually everything will pass. We must also practice endurance and know that the journey is not going to happen overnight. The challenge of enduring past karma is learning not to react or retaliate. Forgive and forget. Finally, Self-reliance, which may be the same as faith in one’s Self, means we must rely on God dwelling within us as opposed to relying on an ego self.
Summary of Swami Sitaramananda’s Lecture at the Los Angeles Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center on June 4, 2009