” One who is regulated in eating, recreation, sleeping and working can mitigate all sorrows by practicing yoga.”
– Bhagavad Gita (6.17)
“Our entire process is recreation”, srila Prabhupada declared emphatically to a reporter who asked how devotees relax and balance their lives.
For years I struggled to understand this one statement of srila Prabhupada.
I wondered why I felt stressed doing bhakti. I got mentally tired after many days of uninterrupted services and temple programs. When i spent weeks doing devotional service without a break, and heard it is transcendental, i knew I was hurting myself. I soon reached a dead end when i felt no strength to chant my rounds. Somehow I pulled through during those excruciating moments of pain and fatigue when the brain (or mind) is numb and refuses to co-operate with most basic duties like taking medicines or bath or chanting my daily rounds.
There have been occassions when I just didn’t want to get up from the bed. I was irritable and unable to do my simple things. And I didn’t want to chant. And I feared I am in maya or getting a psychological disease. The solution I thought was to pay more attention to hearing and chanting because I heard these are spiritual and refreshing to the soul. After all srila Prabhupada says bhakti is recreational? And devotees don’t take holidays? But my mind and senses protested. And when I was now sick of hearing and chanting, my well wishers said maybe it’s because of offenses. I need to pay more attention and fight the mind and struggle more, etc. I heard Krishna will help a sincere devotee at the time of death. But I wanted help now and here!
But the more I struggled and fought the mind, and tried to pay attention to my spiritual activities, the more exhausted I became. And now regret and guilt also gripped me; ‘ I am not sincere, I am bad’.
And strangely when I walk 21 kilometres during govardhan parikrama and my legs pain, I don’t condemn myself as fallen or I don’t feel bad that I am inadeqaute and unable to walk anymore. However when my mind gets tired after too much work and then I am unable to chant attentively, I lament more.
My mind pains but isn’t it more like my legs aching after a marathon walk. But why do I now start moral policing and bashing myself more? And that adds to emotional pain as well. It’s a vicous cycle that worsens with my purport of moral deficiency whereas in reality my inability to chant or lack of intrest in devotional activities has nothing to do with my sincerity or offenses.
It’s simple fatigue, that’s all, and no need to make up a cock and bull story about how fallen you are. But that’s what many of us do and beat ourselves more.
Our brain is a physical part of the body like legs and it also gets tired. And when you are tired if you try to pay more attention, it’s like running more when your legs hurt. You will break your legs. Likewise, when you are brain tired and you struggle more to pay more attention, you will break your brain!
And then I also discovered there is a scientific reason for that.
Attention can either be voluntary or involuntary. For many practioners, when we perform devotional activity we invoke voluntary attention. That means we chose to pay attention and we chose to say no to various distractions and we make a choice to pull the mind to a particular job on hand. Devotional activities unlike sense gratification, is akin to swimming upstream and that requires directed attention. And when you work your mind doggedly, that causes tiredness to the brain.
And even if you enjoy the struggle in bhakti activities, the fact that you have to direct your wandering mind from distractions and bring it to focus on a devotional cause, means it’s tiring to the brain. And not only devotional services require more concentration as compared to watching a movie or news, it’s also competing with many distractions that constantly threaten to pull us away from our focussed pursuit. After all we are not living in the Himalayan caves but in a city with a smart phone and access to electronic screen all the time. So we have to struggle to say no to these, and focus more on attentive chanting.
Besides these two, there is an additional challenge of initiation vows for some devotees. They find chanting 16 rounds a burden or obligation. So three things – more concentration, more resitance to challenges from distractions, and the drag of responsibility, makes our devotional pursuits tiring to the brain.
But I saw some devotees are blissful in bhakti. They chant more and hear and study srimad Bhagvatam when they are tired. I compared myself with them and thought maybe I am offensive and that’s why I lost taste.
Now however, I have a different understanding. I realize that devotees who find devotional service attractive are very advanced souls because Bhakti invokes their involuntary attention. In other words, they have advanced so much that it’s natural and easy for them to chant and hear, and they feel no problem of fatigue.
I realised I can’t compare myself with such devotees who spontaneously choose to hear and chant; I can take inspiration from those who don’t have to struggle to choose Krishna over maya. One day surely I will reach there but as of now, I can’t imitate them. Bhakti, for me is duty, and for them it’s love. As long as we struggle in bhakti and play a tug of war with maya, we’ll get tired sooner or later.
The symptoms of this natural fatigue are many. Please know this is not a psychological problem or disease. This is just like the body getting tired after phsyical work. But mental fatigue, when not addressed with relaxation or healthy activities that require no endeavour for attention (involuntary attention), can cause burnout or irritation or worse, it can lead to behavior that is out of character.
Many, when fatigued, betray their own values and then go on a guilt trip. When you feel guilty that you are bad, you attract those very activities that you abohr. That’s because the mind says bad people do bad things. After all, you are bad and now you need to do those very things. Thus negative self talk reinforces more destructive behaviour. That’s how many devotees get trapped in a vicious downward spiral.
It’s healthy to feel guilty if we can seperate our mind’s desires and our unhealthy actions from who we inherently are – a pure soul who has noble aspirations to advance in Krishna consciousness.
Unfortunately, instead of healthy guilt, we get overwhelmed with shame, and that makes us merge our identity with our follies. We say to ourselves, ” I am bad” instead of, “I did a bad thing”. There is a difference in these two internal dialogues but because of a fast paced life, we are unable to handle our emotional states and unnecessarily intensify our mental fatigue.
While some suffer because of shame and guilt, many also swing to the other extreme of hypocrisy and decide to marry their dark side and accept lower standards as who they are. They refuse to improve, confusing shamelessness and laziness with honesty. Real Honesty means to know where you are but not remain where you are. But due to poor mental hygiene we decide to give up the struggle altogether. Thus we drift between hypocritical and guilt living. The volatile fluctuations of neurochemicals caused by such extreme living can be disastrous for a sincere seeker.
The way out is simple! Discover your unique effective ways to live in the space of involuntary attention for at least some time in the day. And these need to be healthy and congruent with devotional principles.
For me, Chanting demands voluntary attention but journal writing and nature walks are refreshing and causes rejuvenation – it’s involuntary and an effortless choice. I knew what’s rejuvenating to me may not be directly krishna conscious but I knew it wasn’t gross maya either. It’s definetly quasi spiritual and at least an acceptable form of maya for me. My conscience didn’t protest. And since it’s involuntary and refreshing, it helped me perform my devotional duties more cheerfully.
Srila Rupa Goswami says: yena kena prakarena manah krishna niveshayat – somehow or other fix your mind on Krishna. And poetry and reading books that are not directly krishna conscious helped me practise bhakti better. And as results began to show, my guilt of reading life enhancing literature (although the stuff wasn’t Krishna conscious) disappeared. I focussed on my conscience – it’s silent approval became more important to me than what others loudly claimed srila Prabhupada wanted me to do. I sat relaxedly staring at the rain and centipedes on my floor. I saw strange grasshoppers and delighted at the panaromic scenes on a rainy day, outside my window. I observed the bird nests more carefully without forcing krishna conscious purports; rather I saw the very act of being present in these states as being krishna conscious.
Designated time daily for these kind of pursuits have confirmed medical benefits. For centuries, philosophers glorified spending time in nature even as scientific community scoffed at it. But post 1995, medical research has proved that watching clouds glide past in the sky or seeing leaves rustle in the tree or observing water falling on rocks has a rejuvenation effect on the mind. Yoga has a similar effect.
When devotees spend time in this space that could include oil massage, poetry, journalling, etc, devotees will find bhakti more relishable. Of course philosophically we know that bhakti is not dependent on anything of this material world, but practically we need a relaxed brain to do bhakti activities. And that’s because, for us devotional service demands making a choice and paying attention and working hard on concentration. And if we ignore to relax in a space where we don’t struggle, we are risking burnout.
If we have a sattva state as our default setting, slowly but surely one day direct bhakti activities will also invoke involuntary attention- means it will be easy to chant and hear without making a conscious choice. Just like now our mind naturally shifts to our smart phone, a day will come when our mind will easily pick up the bead bag. But let’s get there slowly and with a quiet acceptance of our small place in this universe. And let’s take care of our souls by taking care of our brains as well. Then, by Krishna’s mercy, we could develop spontaneous attraction for hearing and chanting.
But you may doubt: are we flirting with maya when we relax our direct devotional standards? We are not suggesting to reduce standards in anyway. We humbly present how taking breaks to rejuvenate the mind helps us perform devotional service better. But maya is all powerful, no? Yes, but when we have an obsessive fear of maya, she has fully trapped us in her vicious grip. Our fear of our mind is also simply the mind controlling us, but it is now coming through the back door. By worrying that my mind is terrible, I am simply allowing the mind to abuse me more. Srila Prabhupada wanted us to have a ‘healthy’ fear of maya; not an obsessive Paranoia.
When we stay constantly in a ‘fight’ mode – fighting with the mind and struggling against maya, we weaken our immunity. Our body has an autonomic nervous system that helps us respond to our environment even without our conscious awareness. And this gets weaker if we are always on the fight, flight or fright mode. In fact, this weakens the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which causes the body to become more active during dangers and stress. By keeping ourselves stressed always we are overworking our SNS which is inherently catabolic. But nature has a beautiful balance in the form of parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) which does the opposite thing of SNS. In other words it balances the body’s nervous system when the danger is gone; it lets you rest and digest. And this is anabolic – it helps tissues grow. That’s why soldiers who are constantly on alert and fighting mode eventually need a long break or they go crazy and suicidal.
It sounds very attractive when you say we are warriors in Lord Chaitanya’s army who have declared war against maya. But fighting a war always has debilitating effect on the mind. When I once said in my lecture that there is no war out there, a man challenged me, “death can come at anytime and we need to become 100% krishna conscious to go back to godhead.” I humbly replied that if you die in one week then what you say makes complete sense. But what if you don’t die soon and live for another sixty years; imagine living every day of your next sixty plus years in fear of an enemy and in fighting a non existent war. Srila Prabhupada wanted us to love and serve Krishna happily; not live as wrecks. And there are many devotees who aren’t dying tomorrow; they will live long but if they are fighting a war with maya, their minds will get fatigued and they will land up fighting with other devotees. They will be unhappy devotees. And they will live a long and unhealthy life.
But what about going back to godhead in one lifetime? Let us trust Krishna’s wisdom in bringing us back to Him. That’s surrender – raksyati iti visvaso, bhoktratve varnam tatha….’krishna will protect me and He will maintain my soul’. Let me take care of my own body and mind and allow krishna to care for my soul.
Some people claim that Srila Prabhupada said bhakti is itself relaxing and we don’t need anything else. We need to understand that’s because his life was ‘effective’ bhakti and not ‘executive’ bhakti. He didn’t chant or preach because he had to; he simply was used by krishna. He lovingly remembered krishna and everything happened; Krishna took charge of his life – it was effective bhakti; what he did was an effect of his love for Krishna.
For those at the stage of executive bhakti- which is many of us in ISKCON now- where we chant and hear not because we love Krishna but because we want to develop love for Krishna, we need to get practical. We execute the principles of krishna consciousness now and hope that we will one day naturally perform these activities.
But until then we need to do the needful to take care of our tired mind so that we can serve krishna in the long run happily.
Eight simple tips have helped me personally and I am sure it can help us chant Hare Krishna happily and live an effective life.
1. Taking breaks to breathe and relax amidst our directly devotional duties and timelines. Yoga is part of this.
2. Visualize in a relaxed state how you are slowing down your life and relishing krishna consciousness. That will help us mentally cheer up at the prospect of more Krishna consciousness activities.
3. Reflect on your purpose and mission in life. Yes, your purpose is important and you are not puffed up because you think about yourself. Srila Prabhupada told Tamal Krishna Maharaj that first become conscious and then become Krishna conscious.
4. Spend time in an aesthetic environment like a temple hall where it becomes naturally easier to relax and connect to Krishna.
5. Nature time like ocean side or forest or parks helps mind face less stimuli. This relaxes the brain more than the electronic screen. It’s ironical that we often dismiss yoga or poetry or nature as maya but spend an inordinate time on the internet. Isn’t it better to let the mind wander on a sea beach looking at the waves rather than stay glued to our dopamine inducing electronic screens? In fact when I relax and let my mind wander, I have discovered many creative ideas helpful for my preaching and other services. I think many of us suffer from too less mind wandering. Let the mind wander during a relaxed time and then when it’s time to do bhakti, u can gently and relaxedly get the mind back to focus. Instead of pulling and pushing the mind, try gentle methods to handle your grey cells.
6. Gratitude journal – constantly thanking krishna for the daily gifts keeps our gratitude fresh.
7. Sleep 8 hours and preferably not during daytime as it may disturb the night sleeep.
8. Oil massage on the body and then a hot water bath relaxes both the body and mind.
I am sure soon one day we will find krishna consciousness a recreation as srila Prabhupada said. Till then, we can add healthy recreation to our lives without feeling guilty.
Remember, before selflessly serving krishna, let us take care of the self. Self care is not being selfish. It’s a part of our journey to reach a stage where we completely surrender to Krishna. We want to happily place our fragile lives in the loving hands of Krishna. And taking care of our body and minds is also service to Krishna. Remember srila Prabhupada took walks, oil massage, and ate Prasad relaxedly.
Let us choose sattva now before it’s too late. When sattva becomes our default setting, you can observe your mind wandering and without judgement, just come back gently to direct devotional service.
And please don’t ask others what helps you relax best. You know the answer and please trust yourself.
Ask what naturally and easily draws your attention – it could be hearing, deity darshan, verses memorization; or even walks and yoga- anything without an agenda and more importantly, relaxing. That state of relaxation helps us in seperating ourselves from our mind and that is the success of our sattva practises. And the more we relax and slow down, the more we can observe ourselves as seperate from the mind. And then we can offer our real selves to Krishna…..