Awareness and Karma yoga

From Yoga from Shore to Shore, Swami Satyananda Saraswati

By the word ’awareness’, I mean the act of becoming aware of one’s self. By increasing awareness, through meditation and with a one-pointed mind, you can travel deeper and deeper into the regions of your psyche until you reach the point of enlightenment.


What exactly is meant by the terms of enlightenment and awareness? There is awareness of the outside world; we hear sounds, understand things and our senses are capable of cognition. In sleep there is unawareness. At the most, if you try to concentrate and unify the tendencies of your mind in sleep you become aware of dreams and visions, but there is another awareness; an awareness of our innermost individuality. You are aware of the body; you are aware of thoughts; you are aware of your dreams, delusions and imaginations, but have you ever had a glimpse of an awareness different from these? To have an awareness beyond the body and mind awareness; this awareness is enlightenment. Or, in the language of the Upanishads, to be able to realize, understand, visualize the immortal personality in man, that which doesn’t undergo death and decay, this is enlightenment.

This enlightenment is misunderstood by many. During meditation light flashes may appear, we may lose body consciousness, we may have beautiful scenes and experiences revealed to us and, in our ignorance, we think these experiences are enlightenment, but these experiences are only a process we have to experience as progress is being made in our meditation.

During the ultimate process of enlightenment, what happens? How does one feel? Unless one has attained enlightenment, one has no conception about it. Even he who has attained enlightenment is unable to express it because it is purely a matter of self-experience. Unless you have a tongue to taste, it is impossible to convey to you through the ears the exact nature of sweetness, but still there are aspirants who insist on being told!


Meditation begins at the point of pratyahara. Pratyahara is the fifth step of raja yoga, and literally means ’withdrawal of consciousness’ or transcendence of the outer world and outer experiences. The experiences of smell, the experience of auditory perception, the tactile consciousness; all these are experienced through the medium of the senses. In meditation the mind can be withdrawn and disconnected from these mediums. The mind sees, the mind experiences and the mind cognizes through the different centres of the body, but when outer awareness is withdrawn, the body is there but does not feel. This stage is often believed by spiritual aspirants to be a very exalted state, but actually it is only the beginning, the first stage of pratyahara.

During the process of transcending the external world, visions and subjective perceptions are experienced. Sometimes they are mistaken for telepathic communications. These visions and dreams are due to the depth of the concentration, and they are symbols of the deeper personality. They manifest as the consciousness becomes subtler and subtler. When you walk through the market, you see different shops to the left and right, and it is an ever-changing scene. In the same manner, in meditation the mind experiences various things, changing scenes from within. It means that the mind is passing through the different planes of consciousness: the conscious, subconscious and unconscious. Different layers, depths and heights are experienced. The experience may be of the astral plane, or it may come from a previous incarnation or from your present life. Sometimes, the consciousness develops forms and images of angels and demons, or perhaps the nature, character, tendency or personality of the meditator will symbolize itself in the form of hills, jungles, men or women, in beautiful or ugly forms, or otherwise. All this may happen during the deeper stages of meditation, but they are only distractions and must be discarded. Distractions may come from within or without, and they must come under your control. To remove these distractions, these images, these symbols from within, one must develop an unconscious willpower. A strong willpower in the conscious life, external life, will not help you here. One who has taken to the path of meditation will have to develop the unconscious will.

The faculty of conscious will allows us to be rid of the distractions and dissipations of the conscious state. If distracting thoughts enter my mind during meditation when I have not yet transcended outer consciousness, it will be the conscious will which eliminates them, but when I am deep in meditation, having lost contact with external consciousness, I am in the land of visions; I require only one object of concentration. Here, I need unconscious will in order to remove all the distractions from the spiritual path or from the path of meditation.

The unconscious will is developed by the use of a mala during the practice of meditation. The mala is moved from one end to the other and then the direction is reversed back to the starting point. One never crosses one bead, the sumeru, and so systematically the meditation is broken from time to time. The secret of this unconscious will is that the meditation is broken like this, periodically.

This might appear a novel method, but according to the guru tradition it is said that a beginner’s meditation should be broken so that he can develop his unconscious will and remove himself from any plane he doesn’t wish to be in, as in the land of dreams, or so that he can correct his meditation.

You may have to break your meditation twice, thrice, four or five times. Many believe meditation should be continuous, unbroken, but I say it should have breaks until the form of meditation becomes constant and begins to shine in the inner space of your awareness.


In meditation your consciousness may become suspended; there is awareness of a time, but periodically it is overcome by a momentary void. Also one may experience telepathic communication and foreknowledge of things to come. These are obstacles or disturbances to meditation and these types of distractions are difficult to avoid. Many spiritual aspirants become lost in the snares. They become psychic and begin to practice psychic arts or spiritual healing, or they become telepathic mediums. These things are considered great achievements, but yogically speaking they are the downfall of spiritual life. The practitioners of these arts go on an offshoot away from the object of meditation, for one can either possess siddhis or enlightenment, but not both.

Therefore, on the path of meditation there are three types of distractions: distractions on the conscious plane in the form of thoughts and external things, distractions on the astral plane in the form of visions, and distractions in a higher plane in the form of psychic knowledge and psychic events. The first type of distraction is quite easy to tackle; the second type can be removed with the unconscious will; but when psychic knowledge dawns and you become aware of new things in the deeper stages of meditation, progress becomes very difficult and many spiritual aspirants cannot go further.

In deep meditation when one has foreknowledge that such and such an event is going to happen, naturally meditation is broken, or even out of meditation one might feel that something is going to take place; one becomes so psychic. This is an achievement in itself, but so far as meditation is concerned it is a distraction, a setback and it must be removed from the path of spiritual life.

To succeed here one has to be very careful. One must shun these psychic powers right from the beginning. The aspirant must put himself on the path of karma yoga, and do duties, physical, mental and intellectual. If he does karma yoga the spiritual power generated through meditation can be practically channelled, for this extra spiritual power, responsible for these psychic powers, must be properly utilized and directed. The Bhagavad Gita says that spiritual aspirants must devote all their time to the performance of duty through karma yoga. The meditator should never shun the active life. So, in order to avoid the distractions of the third type, it is necessary that one has some outlet for the expression of the current of spiritual power.

Only then is it possible for the aspirant to experience enlightenment as spoken of by Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and many other people. When you find yourself approaching this point of enlightenment it is something very wonderful. Consciousness remains intact, you have not lost touch with yourself, and yet at the same time you are not aware of the outer universe. You feel all throughout that you are awake, you are actually awake.

Indescribable experience

The experience of enlightenment, as I have said before, is indescribable. It is a point of consciousness where the world is lost for the time being, but the inner consciousness remains intact and nothing of the inner light is lost. Enlightenment is a process in the beginning, it is not a final state because the area of enlightenment is too vast. Beginning from self-awareness it is a process of ascendance; it is not a process of descension. It keeps on ascending and you feel the awareness growing within you. Awareness becomes more and more intense. You can feel this awareness as you can feel the forms of the world. Just as we see men and women around us, in the same manner this awareness is felt. It is not so much an expansion of awareness as a realization of awareness. It is like this. We can be aware that an electric current is flowing through a wire, but that is not the same as if I happen to touch the wire, for then I will experience the electric current directly.

Knowledge and experience, knowledge and realization, they are two entirely different things. This is acutely realized in enlightenment. During the process of enlightenment, awareness becomes more and more prominent, and in the state of enlightenment the awareness experienced by you is at such a height or at such a depth that you can actually feel it. In that process of enlightenment, the ignorance, the distractions, the impurities, the difficulties and the doubts of life are completely rent asunder, and it is then that revelation starts. Revelation means an inner knowledge that manifests. The spiritual being, or the spiritual reality within, comes to prominence. Then one realizes it was not the speech, it was not the mind, it was not the lower body that was functioning in my life, but it was the lower spiritual person and reality.

Beyond the body there is the mind and beyond the mental personality there is the higher spiritual personality. It is always operating, it is always there, it is never absent in us, but it is we who are unaware of it. We are breathing all the twenty-four hours, but we are unaware of it. Our heart is beating, but we are unconscious of the fact. There are many processes in the body and in the mind, and there are various events in your own life about which you are always unconscious. It is because we are so extroverted that we do not know what is taking place inside us. Similarly, there is this higher awareness in us that we can develop consciousness of, not through the intellect, but only by experience.

I shall illustrate this point with an experience of Ramana Maharshi. One day he felt that he was dying. He lay down on the floor and saw himself split into two. He then saw himself lying there as objectively as you see me now and I see you. It is possible for us to become aware of our spiritual personality in that manner, but it is rare, and for most of us, awareness of the existence of the body, of the mind and of the higher self is absolutely absent. Just think for a moment: right through from morning to night how long are you aware of your existence? I mean physical existence, not spiritual existence.

Exhaust your karmas

We haven’t the time to be aware, or rather we are just not aware and therefore we cannot be aware of our physical existence all the time. If we were, the tempo of day-to-day life would be disturbed, but it is possible, and just as you can develop awareness of the body, similarly you can have awareness of your thought process. But can you become aware of the spirit, atman, at will? No, and yet this is the one thing it is really important to be aware of, the immortal Purusha, the part of you which doesn’t die. This man dies, the body; the other man also dies, the mind, but that third man, the immortal self, does not die.

It has no form and experience of it cannot be communicated, but nevertheless it can be experienced. The saints have given it three names: sat, chit and ananda. Sat means ’existence’, ’pure existence’, chit means ’consciousness’ and ananda means ’bliss’. These are the three attributes common to all experience of this Purusha, this underlying consciousness. The Upanishads say this Purusha is of a golden colour and somewhere it is said it is luminous, but whatever it may be, it is hard to know. My only request to all spiritual aspirants is to be constantly aware, aware of the spiritual self beyond the body and the mind.

Enlightenment is a difficult topic to speak about and I have been trying for years to clarify my understanding of it. At the age of six, my spiritual life began with an experience. I was outside my body and I was able to see the body, but I could not feel it, and there was an awareness of a different type from the body and mind awareness. I had been trying for many years to experience that state again, but I did not succeed. When I first met Swami Sivananda in 1943 he just gave me one small key — he said, ’Exhaust your karmas.’ The sadhaka must reduce the weight, the grossness of karma. In your awareness there are layers and layers of grossness: impressions, dirt, distractions, vasanas, the hidden desires, and many, many other things. All these karmas should be exhausted. The exhaustion of karma is an important sadhana in the process of enlightenment.

If you exhaust your karmas, then surely experience in meditation will give positive rewards, but karma cannot be exhausted by karmas. Every karma brings a new impression, so in order to exhaust them, you will have to do karma yoga and not karma. What is the difference between the karma and karma yoga? Karma yoga is an impersonal karma without attachment. Karma is karma with absolute attachment. Karma creates anxiety and neurosis, whereas karma yoga never does. Karma gives rise to exhaustion, but karma yoga brings satisfaction. Karma yoga means selfless dedication and karma means selfishness. In karma everything is for myself and in karma yoga everything is for yourself . These are the distinctions between karma and karma yoga. By karma you add to your karma and your destiny becomes more and more gross. By karma yoga your personality becomes purer and purer, day by day until you experience unbroken peace of mind.

There is only one enlightenment; there is no incorrect enlightenment. Once enlightenment is achieved there is no more darkness in life, there is no ignorance. The light is very clear and the light is very quiet. There is tranquillity, there is no tension and everything is full of bliss. Discrimination between real and unreal is revealed during the process of enlightenment. Everyone can see that he who is enlightened has the light, he doesn’t have to prove it, it is patent.

Enlightenment is the ultimate aim of human life. It is for enlightenment that everyone is born and takes on physical existence. This is the pinnacle of human effort and human accomplishment. It may be called enlightenment, nirvana, darshan, samadhi or kaivalya, but it is all the same. In all cases, to fulfil this life task, it takes a combined effort of karma yoga, bhakti yoga, jnana yoga and raja yoga. Raja yoga is difficult, simpler is bhakti yoga and much simpler than these is karma yoga. Karma yoga may be the simplest, but that does not mean you should only do karma yoga. No, you must practice a synthesis of these three: karma yoga, bhakti yoga and raja yoga.

Meditation must be combined with karma yoga. If you meditate for three hours, then you must work for ten hours, and if you meditate for six hours then you must do eighteen hours work. It is like this: if you have so much vegetable, there must be this much salt; vegetables and salt are never in an equal quantity. Meditation is the salt of life, but karma yoga is the method or the vegetables. Never be lazy in the name of the spiritual path. Meditation combined with karma yoga brings about that awareness which is easily visible in the life of a man in his action, in his behaviour, in his thinking and in his contribution to society and towards himself.

—1968, Tokyo University, Japan