Freedom from action and inaction
My earliest memories contain a nascent seed, a communal condition of longing—of wanting, of craving to achieve. The world was awaiting my imprint, not in transient sand but in intangible memory, locked in the endless cycle of time.
This want inspired me. This need goaded me. A fear of both condemned me. What if I did not succeed? Was I doomed to mediocrity, sidelined to an unexceptional mundane existence?
Was there a beacon of emancipation from this enormous weight of expectation? Could this light anticipate my success, envelop my yearning, subdue the persistent seed of doubt, of questioning?
Ostensibly, it may appear that living in an ashram in India was the perfect escape, an evasion precluding all ambition. This tendril of thought has accompanied, provoked and challenged me throughout my spiritual practice. It is my dread. It is my appeasement. It is a constant, pulsating, liberating force.
However—and this is a vital qualiﬁcation—living with a spiritual master, embarking on a path of rigorous introspection, is by no means an escape. Instead, it is an odyssey of self-discovery and revelation.
Even today, a haunting thread of the ancestral burden of achievement whispers in my waking dream: If I do not achieve, then who am I? If I do not measure myself within the conﬁned context of my environmental, cultural and social standards, how am I to know myself? Does my sense of achievement deﬁne me, validate me?
These questions have been the compelling foundation and ﬁre of my spiritual pursuit. I intuited that it was essential to comprehend this freedom that I so deeply yearned for.
The great Indian sage, Avadhoot Dattatraya, described liberation as a detachment from the vicissitudes of action and inaction. As long as we are engaged in a pair of opposites, we are bound. When we perceive action and inaction as established in one essence, in life, they are known as one. Freedom is intuitively knowing this source.
“Action springs from thought, thought is the function of the mind,
mind is conditioned consciousness, but consciousness is unconditioned!” 1.
Supposing that mind is the seed of action, we can therefore infer that liberation is detachment from the mind. To vivify an awareness of conditioned consciousness, we must investigate these connective strands of perception.
Assuming that our goal, as it were, is liberation, then it follows that spiritual practice, in linear terminology, requires exploration and implementation of this detachment. In the state of freedom, the pair of opposites are sublime. Let us, therefore, explore the imaginations of mind and action and their inevitable relationship.
In Advaita Vedanta, what we refer to as mind is called manas, mind, and buddhi, intellect. This terminology describes the functioning of the individual intellect, mind and body mechanism with which we perceive, assimilate information, conclude and function. As mind’s fundamental essence is changeable, one may conclude that it is a dubious and unstable vehicle with which to traverse this journey we call life. Sometimes delightful, often devastating, the mind is a ﬂawed vessel, not to be trusted.
A fundamental tenet in Advaita Vedanta is the cultivation of a dispassionate mind. In order to enhance and vivify this state of detachment, a rigorous and genuine process of inner observation is required. This culminates with a visceral and immediate understanding that our quintessential nature is not that of the ﬂuctuating, ephemeral, changing mind. When this understanding is intuitively experienced, the tyrannical hold of the mind in our awareness is diminished, nay, transcended, and mind, as dispassionate, functions in equanimity as a tool for sustaining and nourishing a formed existence. This knowledge emboldens a vibrant awareness as opposed to making us a victim of our volatile thoughts and relentless emotions.
“When the mind is quiet, we come to know ourselves as the pure witness.”2.
The following question naturally arises: “If I am not my mind, then who am I?” I propose that the very source of our essential nature precedes the oscillating quality of the mind; rather, it is the very state of observation that illuminates the profundity of our original true nature as unchanging. While we develop and strengthen this ability to observe both the vicissitudes of the mind and its actual stillness, we unfold an awareness that our quintessential unchanging nature is the one who attends all of the oscillating states of existence. This is the state of detachment. This is liberation.
Detachment, or dispassion, is mastery over the eﬀects of the ﬂuctuating mind. It is the unfolding of freedom from any pairs of opposites, from the gross to the sublime—freedom from mind and no mind, action and inaction. This culminates in a state of perfect stillness and liberation.
“If you want to be free, then create that karm which will produce freedom.”3.
What action produces freedom?
Perhaps an action that enhances physical and mental liberation: training the body, mind and intellect to discover an intuitive state that is not subject to changing phenomena and that transforms our experience.
The yogic discipline aims to prepare the body and mind to transcend. A delightful paradox!
As soon the body is born, potential action is born. The body is the seed of action, and action is contained in the seed. To be free from action is to be free of body. The seed is the body of action.
Does action deﬁne us? Does mind deﬁne us? Let us explore the inevitable relationship of mind and action.
The linear aspiration of my spiritual practice is to return to the source of both action and mind, thus dissolving an apparent manifestation of cause and eﬀect. When thought, mind and action are one, freedom from action is freedom from mind. The source is one.
The Sanskrit term sruti translates as “that which is heard,” in addition to referring to the ancient scriptural texts. In Indian classical music, the sruti is the smallest musical interval that can be perceived. It is a unique musical feature that defines the distinct essence of the composition.
There is a fascinating correlation between these two deﬁnitions. The subtlety and profundity of that which is heard in a spiritual context is the underlying deﬁning motif in Indian classical composition. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the exploration of sound and vibration on a spiritual path.
The equivalence of sound, meaning and experience resonate immeasurably. It is a direct, intuitive link to liberation, a numinous bridge between the resonating action of sound and the subtle source of imperceptible sound, which is the very potential of manifest sound in form. This bridge allows us to traverse both action and inaction, unfolding a sublime experience of transcendence.
The question of action, passivity and inaction are the accompanying srutis on my journey. They inspire, they release, and the crescendo is transcendence.
The realm of action is exquisitely intertwined with cause and eﬀect. How, then, do we act freely, without the binding nature of success and failure? How do we act in purity, for act we must? As long as we are linked inexorably to a manifest existence, we must act to sustain this very existence.
Knowledge is required to burn the insidious eﬀects of action and inaction. What is this knowledge? It is an intuitive awareness that our essence is free from all transient life—free from joy and pain, birth and death.
Who is born and who dies? Who experiences joy and who experiences pain? These are the fundamental questions that beckon us. When we can deﬁne with inner clarity who we are, knowledge can unfold. I submit that we are that knowledge, that truth of intuitive, experiential consciousness, which is inﬁnite and deathless.
I will not presume to delve here into the most profound ramiﬁcations of karmic doctrine, however, as a yogini, I am suﬃciently qualiﬁed to attest to and aﬃrm the following: All ﬁelds of a changing nature are attributed to karm, be they intellectual, physical, emotional or even spiritual. If the individual sense of “I” manifests as a subtle act, however sublime, its very essence is ﬂeeting, ephemeral.
Are we to prolong this misleading experience to maintain our illusive attachment to action? Both action and inaction are in the ﬁeld of opposites. Inaction is a passive form of action. Freedom from both is liberation.
“Body is the seed of action and action is contained in the seed.”
Freedom from action and inaction is freedom from identiﬁcation with the body. How are we to cultivate the required detachment from their association, and how are we to comprehend this identiﬁcation?
Are we solely composed of this body, mind and intellect? Who are we when we are asleep? Who are we without the overwhelming individual sense of “I”?
There is an eternal universal yearning to resolve these questions. All cultures, religions and spiritual paths have attempted to address and assuage these longings.
By dissolving the exclusive sense of identiﬁcation with the body, the sadhak, the practitioner, becomes immersed in the knowledge that the entirety, including the body, is the manifestation of Pure Consciousness.
Impeccably poised on the razor’s edge of action and action, we may transcend into freedom from both.
When I sing, I am keenly aware of a sacred moment in which singing, the sound produced, and the reverberating resonance is a holistic manifestation of the Absolute, given ephemeral form. If we can modulate this subtle journey from the Absolute to manifestation, a wonderful progression from source to mind to action, transposing this to all action, then an intuitive knowledge of oneness is revealed.
“I see the jeev (soul), karm (action), sansar (world), and Brahm, the Pure Consciousness, as one and the same Pure Existence, Pure Consciousness, and Pure Bliss, because my individual consciousness has been totally transformed into the state of Pure Consciousness, the very property of the Self.”4.
I predicate that all body identiﬁcation, the prevailing sense that I, my mind, my intellect and my emotional narrative is solely based on my formed existence. This identiﬁcation is imaginary, ergo karm, or destiny, is also illusory. We may assume that imagination is unreal and untrue due to its inherently transient nature. How are we to trust this transient phenomenon? Why would we invest our intrinsic aspirations in a ﬂawed premise?
Let us now brieﬂy explore the relationship between body identiﬁcation and illusion. The premise of body identiﬁcation in Advaita Vedanta presents the following: all body narratives, be they sublime or earthbound—any and all aﬃliation with the body existence—are ﬂeeting, ﬁnite and therefore untrue. We can therefore conclude that that which is changing, that which is the body, is an ephemeral phenomenon. Therefore, how can action, which is based on the dubious authenticity of a body existence, resonate as truthful and genuine?
The pulsating driving force in my life has been to be free in the ﬁeld of karm, action—free from the gross to the subtle and the sublime. I have pinpointed that this freedom can only take place in an authentic recognition of the unchanging source. This recognition resonates outwards to the mind, intellect and body, and thus freedom is revealed.
I ﬁnd myself inexplicably grappling with a continuous measuring thread of my daily performance. As a yogi, this need for a personal tally has simply been transposed to a spiritual realm. In a ﬂurried endorsement of discipline I ask myself: Have I meditated enough? Studied enough? Practised enough? Have I transcended enough?
This somewhat farcical exposition of the tenacity of a conditioned human being has the potential to inspire me, yes, even to goad me into a profound introspective state that is imperative for the one seeking liberation.
“That thou art.” —Chandogya Upanishad
This leading Vedantic assertion refers to the ultimate reality of the Self—a reality that is not bound by the mutable and skittish nature of time. When we observe and understand that all that is changing is not our fundamental nature, we unfold and strengthen this awareness; that, in eﬀect, our essence is unchanging. Thou art that. I am that.
This supreme reality is a joyous discovery of innate recognition. This is our true nature. The essence of Advaita Vedanta is to be free from the divisive nature of both action and inaction. To be detached from the pairs of opposite is a quintessential tenet of liberation.
As long as we are immersed in and engulfed by the precepts of birth and death, joy and pain, action and inaction, our potentially liberated consciousness eludes us. Through self-enquiry, meditation and uncompromising introspection, we may come to realize and experience that the source of these conﬂicting states is one consciousness, life itself. Accordingly, a unique state of existence is revealed.
Through contemplation, we become absorbed in and harmonize with an inner stillness, a quietude. This is peace: prior to thought, prior to action, prior to inaction and any opposing states of conﬂict.
That peace am I. That freedom am I.
- Swami Venkatesanada Yoga Vashishtha pg. 372..
- Excerpt From I am that .Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Pg. 181
- . Excerpt From Yog Vashishth Volume 2 Sthiti Prakaran Swami Shyam
4. Excerpt From Yog Vashishth Volume 1 The Eternal Clarity Swami Shyam