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Wielding the Axe of Detachment




In chapter fifteen of the Bhagavad-Gita it compares the experience of a human being born onto the earthly plane with that of the Aswattha or Banyan tree. This tree is highly unique, in that it not only sends its branches and leaves upward to receive photosynthetic nutrients from the sun like other trees; it also shoots some of its branches downward toward the earth, seeking contact with the soil beneath—contact that subsequently holds the branches in place and gives the Aswattha a source of nutrients and strength other trees do not have. It is thus unique among trees, but interestingly it is not unique among all universal creatures. As the Gita then goes on to show us, it turns out that human beings have a similar upward and downward thrust. With our endowment of spiritual consciousness we reach upward toward the spiritual sky, seeking spiritual nutrients from that direction. And with our biological functions of mind and body we tend to reach downward into the earthbound sense world, looking for interaction with and stimulation from our fellowman and various sense objects.


But in comparing human beings to the Aswattha, the Gita explains that there are also some major differences, the main one being that in our downward thrust we human beings do not necessarily seek nutrients or support. In other words, our downward thrust is not always a positive or life-giving impulse. Rather it tends to be more indulgent and inquisitive, like a kind of intriguing game. True, we may attempt to find growth and fulfillment through that game, but what happens to us more often is that we find trouble. We find temptation, sensual overload, and ultimately a quicksand-like form of entanglement that can be very difficult to extricate ourselves from. We form unhealthy attachments to the temporal material world, and those attachments wreak havoc on the purity of our instinct to reach upward toward the spiritual sky.


As human beings, our true source of life and fulfillment comes from above. It comes from laying hold of spiritual life. Of course, spiritual life is not to be found exclusively in an upward direction, for it is omnipresent throughout our universe. But in the vast majority of mystical literature we are directed upward whenever we seek to act on this instinctual impulse.


A good example of this is found in the Old Testament of the Bible. There we read that God created two distinct upper and lower realms: the realm called heaven and the realm called earth. It also describes the existence of a separation or expanse between these two realms (Genesis 1:1, 6-8). Thus while this is clearly a reference to a spiritual reality, it is portrayed with imagery that is literally discernible to the human senses—imagery that includes an upward and downward direction and spatial properties. Meanwhile, when mankind appears on the scene he is designated to inhabit the earth, knowing full well that his endowment of spiritual consciousness would inspire him to reach out toward the heavenly realm above. And so man’s dual physical-spiritual makeup took on a downward-upward quality.


This quality of man has never been disputed. It is both scientifically and philosophically acknowledged. The dispute has come in when the matter of true life and sustenance is considered. Scientists acknowledge our endowment of consciousness and accede that it tends to have an upward inclination. But as pragmatists who put more stock in sensual perception than spiritual perception the question of where our true life and sustenance comes from is a no-brainer. Because our physical nature demands physical sustenance for its very existence, our true sustenance must come from the downward earthly realm, thereby relegating our upward inclination of consciousness as more of a non-essential frivolous pursuit. Philosophers tend to take a less rigid view, and many among them have expressed a sort of equal emphasis on the upward and downward realms. In other words, philosophically the value of spiritual sustenance to a particular individual can be just as weighty as physical sustenance. Only when we look to the various spiritual communities do we see the scale actually tipped in the other direction—that is, we see spiritual aspirants giving more emphasis to the upward realm as their main source of life and sustenance.


Some spiritual traditions go even further than simply acknowledging the upward realm as our main source of life and sustenance. These go so far as to warn of the dangers of the downward realm. That is the basis for the Gita’s comparison between man and the Aswattha tree. For, in the same way that the Aswattha’s downward thrust adds an element of support by actually holding it in place, our forays into the downward sense realm tend to “hold” us in place, so that we stifle the upward inclinations of our endowment of spiritual consciousness. We send our shoots downward not for support but for stimulation, and this can lead to big trouble. For, once we become attached to some downward source of stimulation we then find that we are being held there against our own will and higher aspirations. We become stuck and entangled, and this “holding influence” can seem so strong that it is easier for us to simply stop fighting it and let ourselves become irretrievably lost in the sense world of man. And it is for this reason that many of our spiritual-religious traditions warn us from even flirting with this danger.

Furthermore, many of them advocate proactive solutions to help us find our way back to our true spiritual impetus.


For its part, the Gita tells us to proactively “whet the axe of detachment and cleave the snaky roots.” It does not downplay the dangers lurking in the sense world below us and does not paint a picture of mutual cooperation between our downward and upward inclinations. Rather it calls for a complete severing of our downward thrust. It speaks of a common progression for one who refuses to take this matter seriously and continues to indulge his or her lower impulses: One begins perhaps simply by pondering an object of the sense, but out of this pondering there inevitably springs attraction; then out of attraction grows desire; desire flames into fierce passion; passion breeds recklessness, after which the memory becomes betrayed; noble purpose is let go of, and the mind is sapped until purpose and man are completely undone.

Paramhansa Yogananda taught of the importance of controlling and reversing this downward human sensual tendency. He used a method that he called Kriya Yoga for retraining the downward thrust through the base chakras and causing the energy to reverse its direction and instead begin flowing upward in the direction of the Christ center between our eyebrows. He explained that our downward sensual tendency as human beings has become our “natural” tendency due to the cultural conditioning we are all inundated with beginning at the moment of our birth. Thus as we become more and more conscious and empowered spiritually one of our foremost tasks is to reverse the natural and transmute it into the spiritual.


How does the Bible weigh in on all of this? While it does not use the same words or imagery, it concurs that this is a major necessary undertaking for all those wishing to

go to the deepest level of spiritual absorption. Additionally, it is very explicit in its warnings about steering clear of the sense world. In the little New Testament book of 1 John, in chapter 2, verses 15-17 we read: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. For everything in the world comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Thus it is really the same message, only geared more to the Western mind.


And of course, Jesus, as the Master who most clearly brought to light the Christ consciousness to which we are all evolving, could in no way sanction even a slight, seemingly harmless involvement with the sense world of Adam. This was made clear by many things he said and taught, but this one statement sums it up: “Whoever does not pick up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:38,39). For us the death of the cross is not meant to be a physical death. It is the death of our carnal-sensual Adamic nature. And for us to pick up our cross and follow him is the same as saying that we must proactively wield the axe of detachment. Death is not a halfway solution; it is quite total and irrevocable. When Jesus speaks of finding one’s life in this quote he is referring to the illusory sense of aliveness we sometimes attain when indulging in the Adam sense world. And what happens to us when we do that? We become deceived by it. We become attached and stuck. And so we actually end up losing our life—that is our true spiritual life. Whereas, willingly going the way of the cross and forsaking our natural attachments to the temporal sense world results in us finding our true eternal life. This is very powerful stuff, but Jesus never balked at making the truth known. He never watered it down or portrayed it as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.


Of course, all such exhortations, whether coming from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Bible, or an enlightened master, are scoffed at in the world itself. In fact, they are one of the main arguments that people use to justify their reluctance to setting out on the spiritual path. True spiritual commitment, seeing the path to its ultimate end, is viewed as unnecessarily extreme. While adding a little sense play to one’s daily existence is portrayed, even by psychologists and medical doctors, as healthy and “balanced.” Thus the voice of world culture works against our higher instincts and sets a formidable hurdle of inertia right in the center of our path. When this is the case in our own experience, things can get difficult for us. We must make a staunch effort to hold to the truth teachings of the holy books and great masters and denounce the voice of world culture. For, as I hope to have conveyed in this article, even an attempt to mix a little of the worldly brew into our overall life experience can prove disastrous. It can quite easily lead to the whole man becoming undone.


So do not hesitate to pick up the axe of detachment and go to work on your habitual downward tendencies. It may seem a little painful and severe at first to be without your normal sense pleasures. It may seem unnecessarily bleak and forsaken. But if you will press through you will find that you are not really losing anything. You are finding your true life.



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