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Spirituality and mental health: Acharya Prashant, interviewed by Joshua Bloom (2019)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
24 min
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Interviewer (I): We're in Rishikesh, India and with me for today’s episode podcast is Acharya Prashant, who is a spiritual teacher and philosopher of Vedic tradition. It’s a pleasure to have you join us for the podcast.

Perhaps we could begin with, what inspired you to give up quite a successful career and embark on a path of a spiritual teacher?

Acharya Prashant (AP): Every person, every individual, does what he deems to be of importance. And I could begin to see with some clarity that though all the tasks that are commonly performed in the worldly economic domain have a certain importance, yet as we stand, as our condition and condition of the world is, there is something far more important that needs to be taken up as work. It was important, I submitted to it.

I: There is a common theme I find amongst eastern wisdom traditions. I just came from the Kumbha Mela and spent a little time with Gurus and Sadhus there, and even just this morning, I was at Satsang by Mooji. The common theme is regarding the mind and the Ego. That is almost like something that you should try to vanquish, like here some sort of enemy, almost even a devil. How do you feel about the Ego?

AP: You see, to treat the Ego as a devil or an enemy, is to become a self-hater. The Ego sits at the center of our thoughts, feelings, actions; even the involuntary or any physical functions or breathing actually have the Ego at their center. The aim of spirituality is not to annihilate or vanquish or kill the Ego, it is to provide that to the Ego for the sake of which the Ego actually exists. It is not without a purpose that the Ego exists. The Ego wants something, the Ego wants fulfillment.

Spirituality seeks to provide fulfillment to the Ego, completion to the Ego, relief to the Ego.

The sense of the self as we all know through our daily experience, is something that makes us wander hither and thither; we try this, we try that. And the one objective that we have is Peace. We want to come to a point where we are not feeling restless, incomplete, tense about something, missing something, that's what the Ego wants. And if that is what the Ego wants, how can the Ego be evil?

The Ego is a small thing, a fragment, a bit, a part, that wants to be total. Is this a mark of evil? The Ego is aiming at totality all the time. You could also say the Ego loves the Total, the Absolute. The Ego loves fulfillment.

It might not be wise enough to exactly and immediately know the route to take to fulfillment but nevertheless, every single activity that any person ever undertakes is ostensibly chosen to give fulfillment to him or her. So, the Ego is a lover of fulfillment.

In the language of religion, you would say, ‘Ego is a lover of God’, because God is another name for the Absolute, the Total. Ego loves fulfillment, Ego loves totality, Ego loves God. Now would we want to kill a god-lover, or would we rather help her? She has a certain purpose, she has a certain desire but it’s a hazy thing, she is lost. Why not help her, guide her, why not be kind and compassionate to her?

I: There are instances where people’s egos get out of control. Take the president of the United States, who is the epitome of perhaps, like the teenage male ego. He epitomizes that, and he takes it to a new level, his psyche, he has lost his ability to reason in many ways because his ego is so dominant.

AP: Yes, but even in the most spectacularly absurd cases you still have to clearly see and admit that the Ego is saying, ‘I want good to happen.’

If you ask even a so-called monster, from any age, any of these living, dead, actual, mythical, “What do you want?” He will say, “I want good.” He will say, “I'm doing that which is right.” Even if he concedes that he is doing wrong, he would still say, “Wrong is right. And therefore, I am entering the wrong.”

The Ego seems to have high regard and respect for what is right. It is just that it does not quite know what is right.

When two persons are in conflict with each other, fighting with each other, don't both of them justify their actions to themselves? In their own eyes, both of them happen to be justified. And that's the central mistake of the Ego. It takes everything just personally. It loves the Absolute but remains at the center of the person.

I: Moving on to a slightly different subject now. Now, in the delivery you gave two days ago, you mentioned that spirituality transcends science because it takes into account both objective and subjective.

Now some scientists believe that eventually, science will be able to understand absolutely everything for the scientific method. And there's those who believe certain things will forever remain a mystery such as consciousness, the true nature of reality. Perhaps you can elaborate on how spirituality transcends science?

AP: So, scientists are saying, “One day science will be able to understand everything.” And why does the mind want to understand everything? Could the scientist answer that?

Science has constricted itself by its very definition. Science says, “I will study only that which is objective.” Science says, “I'm in the field of definitions.”

And what is it to define something? It is to make it finite. So, science is only for stuff that is available to be examined. And what does science say? — Science says, “I will examine stuff, and stuff does exist. It exists and is available to be examined and I will examine it.”

How exactly do you know that something does exist? Science says, “Something exists because it is perceivable.” So, the object of perception is Truth. Truth in the sense that it has an existence beyond doubt. The object of perception is existent because the perceiver is certifying so. So ultimately, on whose word is science proceeding? The word of the perceiver.

Science is saying, “I want to study, what this fan is about, what that star is about, what the air is about, what the waves are about, what atoms are about, what quarks are about, what strings are about, what rivers are about.”

How do you know any of those things exist? How do you know the universe exists? Science says, “Universe exists because man says so.”

You know, does not man perceive the universe, does not man see the universe? So, man is the proof that the universe does exist. And how do you know that man's perception itself is real? To that question, science goes totally mum.

Science does not want to take up that question, that question is beyond the purview of science. So, I said science has limited itself by its very definition. Science does not want to look at the subject. Science says, “I will limit myself to examining only the objects.”

And who is the examiner of the object? To that question, science has no answer. Not only does it have no answer, it even has no curiosity.

Science does not want to enter the perceiver. And it is a very strange thing. Can there be the perceived universe without the perceiver? No.

But science says, “I want to look at only one end of the duality, the perceived end.” The perceiver is not to be touched. And why is the perceiver not to be touched? Let’s go to it. The perceiver is not to be touched because that is dangerous. The perceiver is the Ego and if you want to touch the perceiver you have to go into the Ego, and the Ego is mighty scared of going into itself. So, science will never go into itself. That's where spirituality transcends science. I repeat, what I said, a couple of days back to you, by no desire or design does spirituality intend to violate science.

Science is a little thing, spirituality admits science, respects science, and goes far beyond science. Therefore, those strains of spirituality that seem to be in violation of science are to be very strictly examined.

Never would you find the spiritual process to be in violation of scientific findings, or even the method of science. It’s just that the domain of spirituality is far wider.

I: So, my next question is regarding mental health.

So, in my research over the years of my experience with people who have suffered from mental disorders, it appears that psychedelic drugs have come to the forefront in neuroscience to understand how the brain works, and psychology and psychiatry. And they've proven to be very effective where virtually all other methods have failed, that in people with extreme trauma such as PTSD and childhood abuse. And there could be a message in the ancient Vedic scripts, where there are certain passages about soma which is the plant that they make into a drink, and then consume and it gave transcendental visions. And it sounds like it could be a psychedelic itself.

What is your opinion of psychedelic drugs to help mentally troubled people, and also about the potential roots of psychedelics as the roots of religion?

AP: A man is severely attached to his car. One morning he finds that the car has a dent and a bruise, and the paint is off and now he's beating his chest and crying. He is almost feeling as if his right hand has been cut, wounded, and fractured. So, you take the car to the workshop, get the dent removed, get the spot painted and the car comes back, and the man is happy again, happy and attached. That's how drugs help.

What was the fundamental problem? Was the fundamental problem that the car met an accident, or was the fundamental problem that the man was unduly attached to the car?

There are things that keep happening in the brain, spirituality is not really about regulating the brain. Unfortunately, that seems to be the perception, thinking, even the direction of discourse in many circles these days. They're trying to study the brain; they'll have somebody meditate and then they'll put sensors on the brain, and they'll try to see how the activity over there is affected.

Spirituality is not about having a nice brain or by extension nice eyes or nose or a nice kidney. Spirituality is about disidentification from the entire physical apparatus.

We remain in a state of identification and attachment with this (pointing to the body) and as a corollary with this (pointing to the world). If you are attached to this (pointing to body) you have to be attached to this (pointing to the world) as well.

Spirituality is to see that this (body) system knows how to take care of itself. Your place and the place of this (body) are dimensionally different. This (body) knows how to take care of itself. How? It has all the necessary faculties. There is nothing in physical nature, in Prakriti, that is born and does not know how to take care of itself.

Fungus, algae, little rats, mighty whales, trees, grass, all know how to take care of themselves. This system (body) also knows how to take care of itself. It has the power to locomote. It has stuff that is evolutionarily evolved to hold, grip. And best of all, it has a biologically evolved brain. The brain will take care of itself.

What else is the function of the brain? The function of the brain is to further its own interests, the interests of the organism. That is what is the function of the brain in any organism. So, the human brain also knows how to take care of itself. It has memory, it has intellect, it has experience, it can analyze, it can integrate, it can see things as separate, and it can also see what is common between things. We know of the tremendous powers of the brain, so the brain can be left to itself, the intervention of I is not needed.

Even dogs and monkeys know which drug to take when they are often unwell. You'll find dogs chewing grass, you'll find monkeys looking for a particular herb, all that knowledge is pre-stored in the brain. When even monkeys and dogs know how to take care of their bodies, how to look after their welfare, the human brain too, knows.

So, the function of worldly and physical upkeep can be peacefully left to the organism itself. Who will take care of the organism? The organism itself will take care of the organism. Who will take care of the body? The body will take care of the body.

I am somewhere else, I belong somewhere else, my place is somewhere else, that is a different dimension. I'm not to interfere and if I interfere, that is suffering. Spirituality is to realize this.

The suffering of the brain must remain the suffering of the brain, the suffering of the face must remain the suffering of the face. It must not become my suffering.

I cannot get attached to the body because I and the body are immiscible. I and the body are two different genres.

Now, what happens when you take psychedelics? Go back to the man who was weeping because his car had been dented. You are still attached to the body; you are still identifying with the brain, and then you are taking some chemical that would regulate or subdue mental activity for a while. But the basic fault still remains. What was the basic fault in the case of that man? — his attachment with the car. Your attachment to the body too still remains.

Spirituality is to proceed being yourself irrespective of how the brain is feeling about it, and that is Dharma. It does not matter what my thoughts, feelings, physical, social or economic conditions are, I will do the right thing. The body might resist it. The old primordial conditioning might resist it, but I would still do the right thing.

I would not wait to get the consent of this and this and this (indicating the body, mind, and world). I know who I am. I know for sure, I am not all this.

I: I think the problem lies in the fact that people who have experienced extreme trauma, they don't feel themselves much of the time. And it's so deep-seated within them, the trauma, that plays on their mind continuously, and everyday life triggers that to resurface. And they get into states of panic and depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation. And they're like, “Why can't I go back to being who I was?”

AP: Yes, but then you can get your car dented and painted, and still you would never be secure and peaceful. Because the car, by virtue of being vulnerable, would stand as a continuous threat to your inner peace.

Just as the car has been hit one day, it can be hit any other day. How would you relax? But yes, practically if you indeed are body identified, and the body is paining and due to the identification, the body's pain has become your pain, do take a few pills. That would give you instant relief. But even as you take the pills, you must be absolutely clear that the pills are merely a stop-gap relief. The pills cannot be the final solution. The pills are just painkillers, the final solution is to know who you truly are and therefore get rid of all the miscellaneous, nonsensical interventions that you make in undue places.

I: During my trip to the Kumbha Mela, I encountered several Aghori sadhus, and I learned how they practice which many would find completely diabolical. I mean they're known to eat dead human flesh and do meditation on rituals on top of the human corpse. And many other extreme perhaps even heinous practices with an aim to become purer to completely cut free from common desire, the seven sins. How do you regard some of their practices in their way of worship?

AP: Done wisely and undertaken, if in the true spirit, those practices are useful. It's not without reason that those practices came into being.

What is the fundamental idea?

It is that one is so very happiness-oriented, the Ego is so pleasure-oriented, that we want to look only at the brighter side of life. And we want to totally ignore what that brighter side is carrying as its other half.

So, the way of the Aghori is remarkable. He says, “I will purposefully look at and be intimate to all that, which is rejected by the Ego.”

The Ego is a pleasure seeker; the Ego wants to talk of life and its celebrations and beauties and fragrances. The Aghori says, “The Ego wants to forget death and I will keep reminding the Ego of death.” And he reminds the Ego of death in the most ruthless way possible, as you said, he would meditate in front of a corpse.

Similarly, all the stuff that a normal person usually finds repugnant, rubbish, excreta, rotten flesh, the Aghori purposefully goes close to it. And he says, “Looking at all that which we call as abominable and disgusting, I come to see who we truly are! This flesh that we so much worship today becomes abhorrent to even look at, the day the body expires.”

Where is all the rubbish coming from? Is all material rubbish not a product of civilization?

But we are so fond of civilization, and we are so appalled by rubbish.

The Aghori chooses the way of constantly reminding the Ego that it is purblind, constantly reminding the Ego that it deliberately tries to ignore one side of the dualistic reality.

That way is obviously not for everyone. The way of the Aghori is only for those who have a suitable temperament. It is for very few people. But yes, all of us have something to learn from there.

There's nobody who does not have a selective memory, there's nobody who does not suppress a particular kind of news in his mind, and there is nobody who does not magnify a particular area of his consciousness.

An Aghori's honesty is a great lesson. The Aghori says, “Nothing is to be swept under the carpet. All must be exposed.” The way of the Aghori is especially useful for those who are lovers of cleanliness, and pleasure, and daintiness, and happiness.

The more we ignore the fact of sadness and suffering, the more we become pleasure and happiness-oriented. The more we actually magnify the inner suffering, it may sound strange but the way out of suffering passes through suffering.

**The way to drop suffering is to, first of all, admit suffering.

I: Perhaps on that, now you could briefly comment about the life of a sadhu who renounces possessions and family, healthy young children behind to stop the path as a child of a true seeker.

Some people might interpret this as the easy route, giving up my family. But many people, particularly in India, see that as the more difficult route to relinquish your worldly possessions. In your mind does it allow one to attain a higher level of spiritual awareness?

AP: It totally depends on what your intentions are. What is certain is that if you honestly see that you are suffering and stuck, then you cannot close your eyes to the fact. Something needs to happen; something needs to change, both within and without.

When I first came to this place, you know, this very room was occupied by a family of six. Then I was in the neighboring room. There were four kids. The eldest was hardly six or seven, and two of them were so young, they would weep and wail through the entire night. But I'm in the neighboring room, wondering, how are the other four managing? How will you live? And it is not one of the incidents, it is happening every night. And the kids aren't going to grow up in a hurry. It's going to continue to happen for a very long time. Man's children take an eternity to grow up, and that's the situation of mankind in general.

People are in situations and those situations suffocate them. There is the occasional happiness, there is the occasional pleasure as well. But on the whole, life is pretty disgusting. Something needs to be done, the intent has to be strong and clear, that this cannot continue like this.

Now once that intent is there, then honestly whatsoever appears to be the best route to take, must be taken. But the intention has to be of freedom.

One is being dishonest if one decides to walk away from one trap just to enter another trap — that's what an escapist does. The escapist never really escapes away because his intention is to just save his skin for a while. So, the escapist leaves one trap and enters another one. So, he might quit the family, and as you said, become a sadhu, but even that would not relieve him. It might relieve the family though, but he would still be in the same pathetic situation as always.

Quitting the family is not always as needed. What is always needed is the firm determination to not let life go wasted. If things are wrong in the family, sometimes it becomes very-very important to stay put with greater determination.

Equally, there might be conditions when, for the betterment of everyone, yourself (and everyone includes the family), you might decide to go away from the family for a short while or for a long while. The action cannot be commented upon, it is the intention that is important. If the intention is right, then the action is bound to be right.

Merely going away from the family is no guarantor of the welfare of the self or the family. At the same time, loyally sticking to the family is again no guarantor that your presence with the family and in the house is doing any good to the family, or the house.

One may say, “I want to uphold my responsibility, I do not want to be an escapist. I want to be with the family, I want to deliver all the household duties”, but sometimes it is possible that by being present in the house with the family, one is causing further deterioration of the environment there.

So, all kinds of actions are possible. I said, actions can be many, the intention has to be strong and honest. Life is precious; it cannot be squandered away in petty affairs.

I: Perhaps one final question before we tie-up. So, in the discourse a few days ago, there was mention of thoughts and they come constantly. A constant torrent of thoughts coming up and you could be the witness to the thoughts. And they only have power when you have belief associated with the thought. Perhaps, if you could comment on the power of belief and how it is integral to a healthy mind and body?

AP: You see, we all already have a lot of beliefs, and those beliefs certainly have an effect, an influence on life. So, the process is already on. The input, the process, and the output are all already there available to be investigated. Why not first see how our existing beliefs are serving us, whether actually? And once one has seen from where do beliefs come, how do they become internalized, how do they dominate the entire mental process, and then what do they result into, then it becomes easier to look at beliefs, keep them, discard them, at least not be captivated by them. You said, “What is the role of beliefs in having healthy physical and psychic health?” So probably there is only this one, this single, firm belief that needs to be there.

And what is that belief? Health is my nature; it cannot be compromised.

The Upanishads say, niramayoham , I am the one who cannot be sick. All sickness is to be taken as alien. There is the plane of the body, and the plane of the body is the plane of sickness. My plane is different, I am plane-less, niramayoham .

And when belief is so singular, concentrated and strong, utterly single-pointed then it is called faith. Health is my nature, and I will believe in nothing else then, because I have just one belief. What is that belief? Health is my nature, I am health.

And now if there are multiple and miscellaneous beliefs that are contributing sickness to me. What will I do with those beliefs? I will push them aside. So instead of having beliefs that contribute to your health, believe in health itself. And when you believe in nothing but health itself that will help you simply reject all other needless beliefs.

Interviewer (I): Very interesting way of looking at it. Thank you very much for your time.

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