Q: What is the cause of sorrow, and how do we overcome it? Why do the yoga masters tell us that understanding our own nature is the first step in freeing ourselves from all forms of sorrow?

A: The cause of sorrow lies deep within us, and the cure lies there too. Unless we understand the subtle components of our inner makeup, our search for inner freedom will remain confined to the outer layers of our being, preventing us from discovering either the cause of sorrow or the cure.

Most of us understand that life is precious. We know we must not waste it, yet we remain mired in self-defeating habits, the breeding ground of perpetual strife, pain, and sorrow. Wise men and women from all traditions tell us we must pay attention to the underlying, subtle causes of joy and sorrow, but instead we focus on the gross causes. We fight over tangible goals and material objects and seek solutions to these endless fights in the external world, thereby perpetuating the cycle of strife and misery. Why?

Our core is pure joy, untouched by sorrow.

We engage in this self-defeating behavior because we have two diametrically opposed natures—one intrinsic, the other acquired. At the level of the soul, we are divine—a spark of the Absolute. This is our intrinsic nature. At the center of our being, we are pure, self-luminous intelligence. Our core is pure joy, untouched by sorrow. Due to our self-luminous nature, we have the inherent power to know who we are, where we came from, why we are here, and where we go when we die. We are limited only by eternity. The sages tell us that when we come to an experiential understanding of our intrinsic nature, we find fulfillment and freedom from all pain and sorrow.

But we also have another nature—the one we have acquired and nurtured throughout our lives. While it is true that we are the soul, the body is our locus. The mind is a tool for discovering and experiencing the external world as well as the vast universe contained deep within us. In our day-to-day existence, it is our mind, not our soul, that frames our life and creates a context—positive or negative, constructive or destructive, painful or joyful—around our behavior.

We are what we think. For all practical purposes, we are made up of the habit patterns, belief system, and inner tendencies that define our personality. Our likes and dislikes are shaped by these inner tendencies, and it is from these tendencies that our own personal mindset arises. We live in the box of our mindset, and from the confines of this box we see everything in our own particular way. From this is born our inescapable pattern of likes and dislikes.

We perform actions that conform to these likes and dislikes, and each action creates an impression in our mind. Through repeated actions, these impressions become stronger and stronger until they have formed deep grooves in our mindfield, further strengthening our likes and dislikes. This is called the wheel of karma (karma chakra). Once this wheel is set in motion, it goes on spinning with ever-increasing velocity. This vicious cycle veils the innate luminosity of our mind and makes it a slave to its acquired tendencies. The pairs of opposites—failure and success, loss and gain, honor and insult—become increasingly meaningful to us, and validation from outside sources becomes the foundation of our self-image and our self-confidence. Thus we become ensnared in a false sense of I-am-ness, which obscures our intrinsic nature so thoroughly that we fail to see that in creating our own little world and striving to protect it, we have isolated ourselves from our own intrinsic nature.

The first step in finding freedom is to recognize the tyranny of our acquired nature.

Until we bring a fundamental change in the building blocks of our personality—our likes and dislikes—we will remain confined to our little self-created world and blind to the inherent luminosity of our mind and soul. The first step in finding our way to freedom is to recognize the tyranny and limitations of our acquired nature. We accomplish this by working patiently with our mind and its ingrained habits, thereby systematically freeing ourselves from our self-created world.

Yoga provides all the tools we need to train the mind to be clear, calm, and one-pointed, thereby changing the nature of our thoughts and emotions and isolating our core being from our likes and dislikes, our attachments and aversions. As we systematically free ourselves from the habit patterns, belief system, and inner tendencies that define our personality and veil the intrinsic luminosity of our mind, we reclaim our birthright—citizenship in a realm untouched by sorrow.

More in this Series

Inner Quest: Seeker’s Q&A