Shining World

The Gift of Challenging Times: 7 Vedantic Tips For Thriving Amid Adversity

Without doubt, we live in challenging times. While the human race is certainly no stranger to times of social, political and economic strife and uncertainty, the interconnectedness of our global age means that what affects one of us ultimately affects all of us.

It’s important to realise, however, that such turbulent times present not just challenge, but also opportunity. While we ultimately have little control over outer events, we do have control over how we choose to respond to them. For it’s not our circumstances that make or break our lives, but the way we choose to view and respond to them. 

Whereas, on the one hand, we might allow life to beat us down and become bitter, disconnected and delusional, if we’re wise, we will take life’s inevitably difficulties and use them as an opportunity to turn inward, to strengthen our foundations, develop endurance and align with our highest values. In short, instead of complaining we can focus our energy on becoming a purer and more authentic expression of who we truly are.

This articles offers 7 Vedantic tips for making the best of challenging times, using them as a springboard for enlightenment and navigating life with greater ease and grace. While it’s probably nothing you don’t already know, sometimes a gentle reminder is useful, and it’s my hope you find these tips of help and inspiration.

1. Respond Out of Love, Not Fear

It pays to be honest about how you respond in times of stress. Do you habitually turn crises into catastrophes? Or are you able to practice the Vedic art of tapas, which means transmuting difficulty and hardship into a capacity for endurance, dispassion and physical, mental and emotional flexibility?

I write this in early February 2021, when much of the world remains in lockdown and reeling from a year of devastating pandemic. A great many people have reacted out of fear and despair. They’ve closed down and become depressed, anxious and angry shells of who they were. I know people who have fallen down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, which are essentially fear-based attempts at restoring a sense of control and certainty in the face of seeming chaos and uncertainty.

When people begin creating their own narratives of reality, they become increasingly divorced from actual reality. They get lost in pratibhasika satyam, the subjective reality created in their minds out of thoughts and interpretations, losing touch with vyavaharika satyam, the objective reality of empirical facts. If we lose the capacity to discriminate, we can no longer tell truth from falsehood and right from wrong, and our lives are as good as destroyed. 

Fear and anger incapacitate the mind, robbing us of our ability to think clearly, and this leads to psychological and spiritual disintegration. We become prone to committing adharmic actions, and we must then suffer the inevitable consequences. Karma doesn’t care what our self-proclaimed motive was. It works on the basis of action rather than intention, which is a good thing too, because the mind is capable of warping reality and finding justification for all manner of harmful acts. We find ourselves on what the Gita calls the lower path, whereby our entire psyche becomes warped and negatively conditioned by harmful emotions, poor judgement and bad karma.

We don’t have to react out of fear and anger, however. We have a choice. We can choose to respond out of love. Love elevates us to the higher path, conditioning the mind to what the Gita calls the “divine disposition”. Whereas fear is constrictive, love is expansive. Fear seeks to grasp and control, whereas love seeks to give; to expand and encompass, to understand and to heal. 

People with a higher proportion of sattva guna find it much easier to see things with clarity and to respond accordingly. They’re less likely to be driven by rajasic and tamasictendencies and are generally more dispassionate yet loving by nature. They understand that actions have consequences and they have a high value for dharma and discrimination. This is the state of mind we should seek to cultivate, as it allows for a much truer and less distorted reflection of our nature as pure Consciousness.

The choice is ours. Most people react blindly out of their conditioning, coloured by the distorting qualities of rajas and tamas. They don’t stop to question their state of mind and their ability to exercise healthy discrimination. They’re driven emotionally rather than intellectually, which leads to impulsive behaviour with sometimes dire consequences.

Certainly, we all have blind spots because the human mind can only ever have limited knowledge and capacity. However, it’s imperative that we choose how best to respond to life, and that we commit to acting out of love and knowledge rather than fear and anger. That choice is always ours to make, and, in times of challenge, it’s especially important that we behave consciously and judiciously rather than out of blind reactivity.

2. Accept and Adapt

One of the things distinguishing wise people from the not so wise is that wise people know what is within the scope of their power and what isn’t. They’re then able to use their power to change what they’re capable of changing and accept what they cannot.

As little children, we learn to rail against the things we don’t like or want. If something isn’t to our liking, we’re liable to shout and scream in the hope our parents will remove it, change or, and give us what we do want. The problem is that many people continue reacting to life in such a manner well into adulthood. When things don’t go our way, we get upset and vent our frustration and rage, as though we’re expecting life to take heed and duly conform to our likes and dislikes. 

Of course, life doesn’t work like that. Our little desires and aversions are rarely, if ever, factored into the equation. Things are as they are, whether we like it or not. We all face choice-less situations everyday; things don’t always go our way, and we’re frequently landed with results we don’t want. That’s an unavoidable part of life in duality and cannot be changed. Reacting by throwing childlike tantrums is generally the worst way to affect change in the world and only causes more suffering for ourselves and those unfortunate enough to be around us.

That’s why it’s vital that we cultivate a dispassionate, stoic state of mind. Life will inevitably bring problematic situations our way, but if we learn to increase our psychological resilience and flexibility, we’re less likely to snap when it happens. The Tao Te Ching uses the metaphor of being like trees. Trees know how to bend in the wind. If trees didn’t have the ability to be flexible and yielding, the wind would snap them into bits. Similarly, we have to learn to bend with life; to know when to yield and to respond with as much ease and grace as possible. A regular practice of karma yoga will help with this immensely, as we’ll explore below.

Adaptability is a prime quality that we can all cultivate. It’s one that makes life much easier, relieving a great burden of unnecessary stress and suffering. When faced with situations that we have no immediate power to change, we have no option but to accept them. During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve all been affected by a situation over which we have no direct control. The only sane response is to accept this for what it is and to adapt accordingly: to look for any possible upsides and find opportunities to do something positive and constructive as we face weeks and months of lockdown. 

That is the true alchemy of living: the ability to take difficult circumstances and make something good out of them; to transform the lead of worldly disadvantage into the gold of spiritual and psychological growth and advancement.

3. Use Your Time Wisely

The following words, by the Buddhist sage Dogen, are of relevance to every one of us: 

“Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, and do not squander your life.”

If nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic ought to have demonstrated just how fragile life can be. No matter how healthy you are and how prosperous your circumstances, the one certainty of life is its finitude. Death inevitably comes to us all—only none of us know when. That’s why each and every moment must be cherished as important; as a gift and precious opportunity for us to fulfil our highest dharma and to actualise our life’s purpose.

It’s important to be very clear about our values in life, because our values inform our priorities and our priorities, in turn, determine our actions. Lack of clarity with regard to our values can leave us meandering down dead-end paths and wasting our finite days chasing improper goals and pursuits that likely aren’t aligned with our true dharma. This is always disastrous. As Krishna says in the Gita, it is better to do an imperfect job of following our own dharma than a perfect job following someone else’s. Try though we might, we can never find fulfilment by pursuing things that aren’t appropriate for us, which is why we must always remain true to ourselves.

A genuine seeker of enlightenment will never find satisfaction chasing worldly things alone, whether it be security, wealth or pleasure. Instead, you must commit to using your time wisely and never take a second of it for granted. 

If enlightenment is your true objective, you must ensure that your mind and body are an appropriately pure and fertile ground for the seeds to Self-knowledge to take root, grow and blossom. Vedanta calls for a significant investment of time, whereby you expose your mind to the teaching day after day, working through any doubts that arise, and committing yourself to the actualisation and integration of the Knowledge until you find your sense of identity duly transformed by it. This requires not only a consuming desire for freedom, but the capacity to devote yourself to this higher Knowledge and to keep your mind on course and free from distractions.

Whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to come to the end of your days only to find you barely made an effort toward your highest goal; that instead of pursuing liberation with relentless resolve, you watched too much television, read distracting nonsense online and spending your time in any number of other vain and useless pursuits. 

Life is short and time is precious. Never squander it and never assume you’ll have enough time “later in life” to work on your enlightenment. The only time in life guaranteed to you is the present moment, and that must be seized and used wisely. By all means, take as much time as you need to stop and smell roses. Enjoy and appreciate all the beauty and wonder of life. But make this moment matter and use it to pursue your highest goal as if your life depended upon it—because it does.

4. Less Media, More Sadhana

An old quote, usually attributed to Mark Twain, muses that if you don’t follow the news “you are uninformed” and if you do “you are misinformed.” The problem with media, then, is not a new one. Alas, it is a problem that has only exacerbated over time. In times past, people maybe had access to newspapers and to radio and television news at certain times of the day. Nowadays, however, news is on tap 24/7 courtesy of devices we carry around in our pockets.

While our age of connectivity and on-tap information has many upsides, it also comes with some significant downsides. Experts warn that the constant stimulus is far from good for the brain, particularly in the age of the “attention economy”, with software and hardware developers deliberately designing devices and apps to be as addictive as possible. I wrote an article on the subject a few years back. We’re now in a position where, across the world, people are suffering from digital addiction on a scale never before seen in human history. It’s well documented that mental health problems such as anxiety and depression have skyrocketed in the past decade or so, when social media has taken the world by storm and considerably transformed our lives, not to mention the way we relate to ourselves and others.

I believe that everyone should be aware of the cost we pay for constantly being online and endlessly checking social media and news feeds. While some of the stimulus is sure to be beneficial if we properly curate our feeds, it’s essential to factor as much downtime into our day. You really have to ask yourself: what is more beneficial to me; an hour of scrolling through my phone, or an hour of meditation and spiritual study? This all comes down to knowing our highest values, and being willing to alter our priorities and actions accordingly. And, again, it relates to the knowing that since our time on Earth is finite, we must use it wisely rather than squander it.

The mind is, by nature, formless and amorphous. It takes shape according to the stimulus we feed into it. This, in turn, conditions the mind and either strengthens or weakens the vasanas ( tendencies of the unconscious) depending on how we use it. By our every action, our every thought and word, not to mention all the stimulus we input into the mind, we are literally shaping our future karma and moulding the very structure of our mind. If we’re doing little but feeding negativity into the mind—whether in the form of endlessly negative news reports, echo chamber political discussions and violent, sensationalist films and television—we’re doing ourselves a great disservice by creating papa (negative) karma. After all, we have to then live with that mind for the rest of our life, and, indeed, future lives if you subscribe to the reincarnation theory.

It’s much wiser to restrict and carefully filter what we expose our minds to. A far better use of our time is to engage in sadhana; our spiritual practice. Vedanta teachers don’t generally talk a lot about sadhana, because in Vedanta it’s presumed that the student already has a mind a pure and tranquil as a mountain lake! Only such a mind is capable of reflecting the light of Truth. 

So, if your mind is more of a choppy, muddy puddle than a clear mountain lake, it’s imperative to do your sadhana in order to tame the mind and let the ripples of discontent and desire settle. Instead of compulsively consuming media, whether social media, news websites or television, why not make a commitment to meditate more, learn to chant and take advantage of the tremendous power of mantra, or perhaps pray and develop your devotional muscle, as we’ll explore below. The senses are open doors—so be sure to guard them, be ever discriminating and only let in those things that strengthen, purify and heal your mind. In a tumultuous media-addicted world such as ours, you’ll be surprised at how much of a challenge that is! It is, however, a commitment well worth undertaking.

5. Follow Dharma Impeccably

One of the most important things a person can ever have is a firm understanding of and commitment to following dharma. 

What is dharma? Dharma is the hidden law underlying the entire creation; the natural right order inherent in all things. In the dance of creation, all things naturally follow their nature: the stars shine, planets spin, rivers flow, clouds offer rain, and oxygen sustains living beings, which then return carbon dioxide to nourish the trees and flowers. You can see this underlying pattern of Intelligence governing everything from the vastest of things to the most microscopic of subatomic forms. Everything in creation has its own inbuilt right order and human beings are no exception.

There are three basic types of dharma. Universal dharma means those eternal values that are shared by all living beings. The primary universal dharma is non-injury, for no living being wants to be hurt. Even tiny bacteria cells will do their best to escape anything that might threaten their survival. Life loves life, and all things want to survive and thrive. Because we don’t want anyone to harm, injure or endanger us, we, in turn, should adopt this value and make sure that we don’t harm others, whether physically, mentally or emotionally. A host of other universal values spring from this, including honesty (after all, nobody wants to be deceived), cleanliness, kindness, straightforwardness, and many others. The more we live by these values, the more we are appreciated by others and, generally, the more we make this world a better place by virtue of our being in it.

There is a situational component to dharma as well. Different situations often call for different values and actions. Whereas non-injury is the highest of all values, there may be times where we must, for a greater good, inflict injury, as in the case of a surgeon who must cut into a patient in order to save their life. Different things are expected of us at different times, for we all have a number of roles to play in life, such as parent, child, sibling, teacher, student, employer or employee. Each situation brings with it a specific code of conduct that must be adhered to in order to ensure smooth and successful transactions.

Finally, we each have a personal dharma based upon our innate God-given personality, psychological make-up, constitution and our natural interests and proclivities. As Shakespeare famously wrote, above all else, we must always be true to ourselves. The notion that we can all be, have and do whatever we want is a damaging lie. We were each made to be a certain way, and it is imperative that we be true to our nature and honour ourselves by playing the role that we were born to play. Each of us has a unique contribution to make to the world, and the way to find it is to honour our nature and allow that to guide us. Artists must paint or sculpt, builders must build, leaders must lead, doctors heal, thinkers must think and soldiers must be willing to fight for a noble cause.

We live in confusing times; times devoid of spiritual knowledge, with rampant individualism leading us to widespread narcissism and breakdown of dharma. Contrary to what we’re told, life isn’t about getting what we want, it’s about giving all that we can. In a desire-based culture, where personal want is weaponised by consumer forces, it’s all too easy to lose sight of that and to fall into the trap of perpetually seeking rather than seeking to give. That’s why, in order to hold true to dharma, it’s vital that we develop our powers of discrimination and discernment and not be pulled off track by adharmic mores masquerading as socially ingrained truths. In short, keep life simple, stick to the basics and always follow dharma impeccably.

6. Be a Karma Yogi

The only way to live a sane life in times such as these is to live as a karma yogi. The Bhagavad Gita explores karma yoga extensively in its early chapters and is essential reading for all spiritual seekers. The first step is to have a clear understanding of dharma, so your actions are determined not by what you want and desire, but by what is right in any given situation. Action is unavoidable in life; our days consisting of a succession of actions right from the moment we get up and clean our teeth to the moment we climb into bed at night. Dharma takes the burden out of doership because we no longer act solely to gratify our likes and dislikes. Rather, we do what is right in any given situation, and serve the creation out of gratitude for all we have been given in life.

Karma yoga helps neutralise our binding desires and aversion because everything that we do, we do not to achieve a specific end, but as service to God. We can sanctify all our actions, however mundane, by offering them as a gift to the divine Intelligence that created and sustained the universe, and to which we, as jivas, owe everything that we have and are. 

Karma yoga converts our entire life to a field of service, and this purifies the mind like nothing else. We no longer exist solely to scratch the itch of our wants, desires and addictions, but to contribute back to life out of love, gratitude and the desire to serve.

One of the things that most disturbs the human mind is uncertainty over the results of our actions. Because we live in a dualistic, transactional reality—with countless unseen factors at work in any given situation—there’s never any certainty that we will get what we want. In fact, it’s often likely that we may not get what we want, and at times we get precisely what we don’t want. Karma yoga removes this burden because we come to accept all the results of our actions as coming from Isvara, from God, and whether we view them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we nevertheless accept them as proper. When you cultivate the ability to accept both the desired and the undesired in life by seeing everything as God, your mind matures and becomes dispassionate, steady and flexible. Only with such a mind will your pursuit of enlightenment bear any fruit, because liberation is liberation from the tyranny of our thoughts, projections, compulsions and emotional reactivity.

In life, a lot of people fall apart when the going gets tough. Those lacking the psychological and emotional resilience to cope with stress and uncertainty tend to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms. As Krishna states in the Gita, the mind can be our best friend or our greatest enemy. It therefore behooves us to make a friend of our mind, and we do this by cultivating mental evenness, steadiness and flexibility, and by neutralising the binding desires and aversions that otherwise cause so much unrest.

Karma yoga is the ideal practice for taming the mind. First, we allow all our actions and decisions to be determined by dharma. We do what is right and appropriate in every situation according to universal and situational values and by acting according to our own innermost nature. We then perform all action as a service to Isvara and accept whatever results come as being from God, and thus legitimate and proper, regardless of whether they conform to our wishes. 

Please note, the latter is not an attitude of defeatism. If you don’t get the results you intended, that doesn’t mean that you give up. Depending on the dharma of the situation, you may need to continue doing what you’re doing until you get the result you seek. But you do so with a mindset of nonresistance and acceptance. You don’t let yourself be pulled into attachment and emotional reactivity; you simply accept the reality of the situation and keep doing what you must. This inner nonresistance to life brings us into alignment with Isvara—which is to say, into alignment with what is.

7. Be a Devotee

A while back a friend asked me what devotion means. Devotion lies at the heart of all our lives; as that to which we devote our time, energy and efforts of pursuit. Everything that we do in life hinges upon what, in our heart of hearts, we’re truly devoted to. 

Given that we’re born and raised in a hyper-consumer capitalist society, many people grow up predominantly devoted to material ends and all that might entail. They may be devoted to the accumulation of money and possessions, the attainment of power and status, acclaim or esteem in the eyes of others, personal pleasure and enjoyment, or the sense of being a good and worthy person. The object of a person’s devotion varies according to the underlying factors motivating it. But ultimately, everyone does what they do for one reason only—to feel good, which is to say, to feel God. We all want to feel whole and complete and happy. That’s the hidden wish behind every single desire we have and every action we undertake.

Vedanta cuts to the heart of the matter. There’s nothing actually wrong with seeking worldly success, pleasure and virtue. In fact, those are all legitimate endeavours according the Vedic teaching. What is wrong is seeking lasting happiness and fulfilment in the world of finite forms. When we tie our happiness to limited, time-bound forms over which we ultimately have little control, it’s a most precarious happiness indeed—a happiness forever beset by anxiety because we know it will eventually end and lead us to misery. 

Vedanta teaches that what we’re ultimately seeking is a more Infinite happiness and fulfilment, and the Infinite can never be found in the world of the finite. The scriptures make it clear that what we’re really seeking is ourselves—and, fortunately, that’s the one thing that is always present and can never be lost.

The attainment of objects doesn’t in itself bring us happiness, although it might seem that way. What it does is remove the subtle pain of desire and enable us to experience the bliss of our own nature in a calm, steady mind unruffled by the agitation of desire-waves. Our very nature, the sages declare, is sat chit ananda—existence, consciousness and bliss. Why seek this indirectly through the world of objects—which, being a duality in which happiness is forever offset by sorrow, and gain by loss—when we can find it directly by turning our mind inward and merging it in its very source: the pure Existence/Consciousness/Awareness underlying and illumining our every thought, emotion, experience and sensation. This is the “direct path” and ultimately the only way to find a joy, wholeness and contentment that is never eclipsed by lack and limitation.

We ‘attain’ this liberation by keeping the mind fixed upon the beginningless, endless and ever untarnished Consciousness/Awareness that we truly are. We devote ourselves to Truth and Self-knowledge, which is symbolised as light; the only thing capable of vanquishing the darkness of self-ignorance, the source of our bondage. 

As already noted, this requires a pure and disciplined mind. It’s not easy keeping the mind fixed upon what might seem intangible and abstract. Consciousness is subtler than the mind and, being so, cannot be grasped by the mind or objectified in any way. It takes a subtle and refined mind to effectively and consistently contemplate the Self. 

That’s why Vedanta urges us to cultivate the mindset of a devotee. In this day and age, when religious devotees are widely viewed as simpletons and even many spiritual seekers are quasi-atheistic, it can be hard for people to embrace the devotional mindset. We live in a culture where most people’s primary devotion is to the ego and its desires and aversions rather than a God figure. But Vedanta urges us to purify the mind and weaken the bonds of ego by embracing a symbol or symbols of the Self in the form of Gods or Goddesses. 

By adopting an Ishta devata, or personal deity—a form of God that appeals to us—we create a powerful symbol by which we can focus the mind on our own highest nature and the ultimate Reality that is the Self. This has a powerfully purifying and nourishing effect on the mind and heart. Whether we practise this devotion through daily rituals of worship (puja), the recitation of mantra and prayer or visualisation, we begin cultivating a blazing love and appreciation in our hearts for the ultimate Reality that is the One, Eternal Self. Instead of deriving our emotional support from the external world (a precarious proposition given how finite and unstable all objects ultimately are), we begin experiencing it from within through realisation of our innate oneness with the Divine.

So, when the world around you seems unsettled and uncertain, take the opportunity to turn within and fortify your own spiritual power. While, ultimately, we are pure Consciousness and beyond even Gods and Goddesses, the jiva, the apparent person, must still inhabit the world of duality. That’s why becoming a devotee of God is a tremendously healing and strengthening way to cope with life and to free yourself from the tyranny of the ego and its ingrained likes and dislikes. You learn to derive your joy and fulfilment from within, and the more you are able to purify and train the mind to stay focused on the form/s of God (Saguna Brahman) the easier it becomes to realise your essential oneness with the ultimate formless Self pervading and appearing as all forms (Nirguna Brahman).

In conclusion, these seven steps are ways to practice the true alchemy of life. You do this by embracing times of challenge as opportunities to turn within, to clarify your highest values and commit to using your time wisely and well. By always being clear as to your highest goal in life, you’ll find yourself willing to do whatever it takes to actualise that goal. You’ll find yourself making leaps and bounds in terms of spiritual growth and the attainment of liberation becomes not some distant fancy, but an actualised, living reality.

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