Acharya Shunya: Sovereign Self
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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Acharya Shunya. Acharya Shunya is a classically trained master of Ayurveda and an award-winning and internationally-renowned spiritual teacher and scholar of Advaita nondual wisdom. She’s the first female leader of a 2000-year-old Indian spiritual lineage, and she’s dedicated her life to the dissemination of Vedic knowledge for the spiritual uplifting of all beings.
With Sounds True, Acharya Shunya has written a new book, it’s called Sovereign Self: Claim Your Joy and Freedom with the Empowering Wisdom of the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita. I have to tell you, sitting down with this book, Sovereign Self, it felt to me like an explosion inside of myself as I was reading of the boundless power and potential that we each have. I’m so excited for you to hear directly about Sovereign Self from Acharya Shunya.
Shunya, I had the great joy of interviewing you for Insights at the Edge several years ago, when Sounds True released your book Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom. Towards the end of our conversation, we started talking about, well, really, you started sharing about the infinite mind. At that moment I knew that you had in you a book about this infinite mind. I had no idea that several years later you would write a book called Sovereign Self. So, I want to start there and talk about Sovereign Self, and that term, and what it means to you.
Acharya Shunya: I remember that conversation. In many ways, the journey to birth Sovereign Self perhaps began interestingly right after talking to you, Tami. Infinity is intrinsic to the human experience. In fact, we all have such a memory of our infinitehood that any kind of suppression, obstacles, limitations, imposed rules, irrational enforced boundaries by others, not our self-enforced ones, they all feel suffocating. Because according to the Vedas, which is the oldest body of wisdom coming out of India, our true nature, which I call “self” in English, but it really means atma in Sanskrit, literally means [Sanskrit language], that which is boundless.
So, that boundlessness, limitlessness, inexhaustible essence of spirit within us is inherently infinite and that is why we human beings push and push, and nobody can keep us in a corner too long. Nobody will stay enslaved for long. Nobody will stay co-dependent. At some point we’re going to push, advance our self-created or societally-given boundaries and limitations and prisons, and claim our infinitehood. I went through one such journey and it became important to me. Somehow all teachers carry some important piece of the puzzle of our brilliance, our radiance, our light.
For me, it was important to remind people that we are meant for infinity. We’re not small creatures. We’re not limited and bound, least of all, by false beliefs. That self, that boundless being within us, may be invisible, but when we start expecting to find something amazing and infinite within us, it does not disappoint us. It shows up in creativity, Tami, it shows up in our ability to reinvent ourselves. It shows up in our own unending hope, and this whole march of humanity has been driven by this infinity mindset, not a finite mindset. It’s very exciting, and I’m so excited I finally took three years out of my life and wrote this book.
TS: Now, Shunya, you mentioned that you went through your own personal journey, we could say, from some form of feeling limited, or you described it as emotional bondage, to spiritual freedom. Can you tell me more about that, your personal journey?
AS: I was born in a progressive family. The Veda is such a tremendously progressive teaching. They were the first teachings of the world, the first–and only, perhaps–spiritual teachings that have been equally authored by male and female seers. But then India, that I inherited, had become quite regressive in its thinking, and patriarchy was quite dominant all over India. So, when I left my home and my wisdom school–because my family was my wisdom school, Tami, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, even my father, these are all renowned people in India.
My wisdom school had been opened to women and in fact, the first transgender student also, something quite unheard of in India, way before all of this became the trend in the world. I come out of that family and I take up the institution of marriage because we don’t come from a monastic lineage. We come from what is known as grihastha sadhaura, householder lineage. We are meant to live in the world and then find our inner daughters. We don’t have the option of being celibates or taking the monastic vow. We have to live in the dirt and grime and blood into who we are.
But then, marriage was a whole new experience, not only of patriarchy, because that was just more in the background, but more like people wanting to define my gender, limit me by the expectations, of what is appropriate for my gender. There was no room for me to be who I am. So, it was not just about rebelling to one person or a family, it was about finding my true free essence without bitterness. Truly being able to lead the life I was meant to lead. I was clearly meant to be a happily married family woman, with a partner, with someone who can appreciate me and understand me.
I was truly meant to be a spiritual teacher, Indian yet unconventional. I was meant to be grounded in my roots but able to deliver new fruit to the modern seekers, so that they can actually taste it and it just doesn’t sound like some esoteric mumbo jumbo. I was meant to do all the stuff and there I was, afraid, there I was, scared. I went into the flight, fight, and freeze response. The freeze response is very scary because we become estranged from our own nature. But then, the wisdom that I had received from my grandfather when I was younger, systematically, day after day, and we are supposed to listen to it with utmost sincerity, which is known as sravana.
We’re supposed to contemplate and monitor the privacy of our heart known as manana. Then, it is said that when we are in need of it, it will become that boat and take us across, and that is known as nididhyasana, and we put it into practice. Gradually, I was able to create the kind of life I wanted to lead, and more and more. It was about not just being a woman or an Indian woman, but it was about being that infinite glory of self, with an Indian body, with a feminine gender. “Who am I, where have I come from? What is my ultimate journey? Where is the light? Did someone take it away from me, or did I give it away? Did I self-create my suffering because I was afraid of being who I am? Or, did others whip me into being in solitude of societal norms?”
So, I had all this stuff that I had to thread apart. Even though I became the lineage bearer, I could not go out in the world at 24 and say, “Look at me, I’m a 24-year old lineage holder of an ancient lineage, bow to me, courtesy to me.” Instead, I became quiet and I meditated, and I sat in the garden and I spoke my truth. I accepted my fear. I embraced my shadow, and I discovered my light, Tami. This is how this book was born. It’s a true journey.
That’s why I didn’t really take on a student until age 40, when I felt really honestly, fiercely, passionately capable of looking at the student in the eye and saying, “Sovereign, self-governance, empowered, bold life on this planet is your destiny, none other.” I couldn’t have done that a day sooner.
TS: Now, just to ask a personal question, Shunya, did your marriage evolve and work out, or did you have to leave that marriage in order to find your full empowerment?
AS: I had to leave that marriage with my head held high. This was an unknown in my country, my culture, and my tradition, where I’m supposed to somehow put it all together. Instead, I have to say, “Well, let me go back to the Vedas, let me go back to the holy books. They say that a woman can do what she wants.” So, I empowered myself with the truths and not with the dogma.
TS: So, your new book, Sovereign Self, it’s glorious, it’s absolutely a gorgeous book. As I was reading the first 50 or so pages, to be honest with you, Shunya, it was intoxicating to me. I was feeling that part of me that is absolutely infinite and radiant and powerful. At the same time, I was aware of the part of me that’s struggling in my life, that’s having a hard time with various things– worry, concern, that kind of thing. I’d love to know more how you put that together for your students. How you help your students understand, “Yes, there’s the sovereign self, but in our direct experience, even as we’re connecting with it, we can feel struggle, worry, concern, fear.”
AS: Thankfully, there is a whole process to it, there’s a journey. So, the whole book, say you would continue reading it, those doubts would resolve because it’s a guided journey. I didn’t make up this guided journey. This guided journey has been conveyed by a master to a student over thousands of years. So, there’s a whole process. That’s why in the pure Vedic tradition, a teacher is one who has received that systematic knowledge that allows for the deep conditioning of the mind. So, there is a beautiful teaching in an ancient text called Ramopanishad. It says, “[Sanskrit language].”
Which literally means, “Look here, seeker, are you ready to become an infinite glorious, gorgeous being that you are always meant to be, which you are deep inside but you’ve forgotten? Then, let’s look at your mind.” It’s a nature of the mind. If your mind is running after, it can desire and enjoy the objects of this world. If it’s grasping and clutching, and greedy, and subservient to the various objects, things, and people, then, it goes into a state of bandha or bondage. You’re no longer sovereign to discover your own inner garden when you’re busy trying to get the flowers from your neighbor’s garden, at any cost, period.
But that same mind, don’t worry, don’t kill the mind, don’t hate the mind, don’t shoot yourself, this same mind will become the reason for you to experience total and complete freedom, which is known as moksha or mukti in yoga. That same mind we have to work at. So, number one, in this book, I have talked about, let’s look at where the mind is, and most probably it’s stuck, it’s trying to put square pegs and round holes. It is caught up in repetitive patterns. It’s lamenting. Either it is in a self-pity mode, or it’s super angry with someone else. It’s going round and round in a loop, which I call samsara, and it becomes quite a delusion.
We look at the mind, but then we take it forward because we say that the same mind may be your enemy today, but this is the mind of a divine being. The same mind exposed to right knowledge will make it your friend. So, it can be a ripu, or an enemy, or it can become a bandhu, a friend. Here is how you make it a friend, and that’s why in the fourth part of this book, I went into detail so that everybody can identify their mind. “This is me, this is me.” That is such a relief. That, “OK, I’m not the only one, 5,000 years ago, or 10,000 to 5,000 years ago, these sages, men and women, enlightened beings, were recognizing the mental patterns that keep us forgetful of our own inner sun, our own truth.”
Then, in the second part, I talked about how we can take the mind, the senses. We don’t have to sit in our stark still position away from the world, sexless beings, only eating a certain kind of food, monotonous, to be enlightened while living in the world. How can we use our senses, our intellect, our being, our practices so that our mind becomes our friend? Let me see that part.
Then, in the third part, we talk about dharma. Now that your mind is your friend, now that you the spirit is the master of the mind, what does that look like? How do you walk out of relationships with your head held high and your former spouse is your friend? How do you do that? How do you fill your cup without snatching from somebody else? How do you live this life of sovereignhood, masterhood, freedom? So, it’s a very systematic process, Tami, and I’m a teacher of that systematic journey. I lived it on my own. I’ve been teaching it for more than two decades successfully all over the world. All of that, honestly and searingly, became the book.
TS: Now, Shunya, in the book you seem critical, I think, of the view that some people have of something like instant awakening, that it’s possible to have a singular breakthrough at some point. Then, that’s it. You’re enlightened moksha forever. Why is that something you’re critical of?
AS: It’s really important to differentiate responsibility in a book that’s talking about awakening. “What is awakening?” The mind goes through its waves, some are high waves, some are low waves. Sometimes, it can have a superior high wave, and we can feel we’re awakened, and it’s a glimpse into something very special, but then, there is a crash landing afterwards. The Vedas and the yogis are very clear, very clear that this is not a permanent shift. This is not a shift of the mind felt better one day, so the room was full of more light one day and suddenly you announce to the world, “I’m awakened.”
You set yourself up for failure because soon there will be clouds, the sun will be covered, and your mind will begin doubting itself. It will feel fake or imposter deep inside. It will lead to some questionable acts and behaviors outside. Our society tends to revere people who are awakened, and I don’t blame anybody to do that. Because deep down in us, each one of us has a memory and a yearning to know who we are and to act and be beyond the matrix. But to announce very quickly that “I have seen beyond the matrix” is a new trend, but this may not be a new trend because even the ancient scriptures learned about it.
They’re taken to a systematic process because the mind is very chameleon-like. It can pretend that it is spiritually awake. It can get into this spiritual hypocrisy, that’s the last veneer of the ego, which I talk about in my book called shastra vasana. It will memorize the Bhagavad Gita, it will chant the Buddhist Sutras. It will meditate and see lights, and sadly, the ego will hope that it is enlightened. Sometimes, it’s not even ego, it’s like this little ego trying to be awakened. But instead, the real test of awakening is emotional maturity.
Ability to go through life’s ups and downs without extreme behavior. So, in the Bhagavad Gita, if I may say it, Tami, there’s a beautiful teaching. Whatever I chant in Sanskrit has become a known Sanskrit teaching for everybody, but Krishna says it simply, “[Sanskrit language].” Who is that enlightened person? That enlightened person has gone beyond this incessant loop of an ordinary mind, which desires. When the desire is not fulfilled, it feels this attachment. Desire, attachment, then fear, “Oh, no, I might be the only one who will not get what I want.”
Then, anger, “How dare I don’t get what I do want?” Then, anger feeds the attachment some more. Attachment makes us grieve some more. So, that’s a typical mind, but awakened mind has gone beyond that. It goes beyond the sorrow and joy. It’s not a numbing behavior, Tami, but definitely sorrow doesn’t destroy you when difficulties come your way. Similarly, when joy comes your way, you don’t get all swollen-headed and egotistic and greedy for more. There are very grounding, real descriptions of an enlightened being rather than the pop culture of awakening. I am the old school, so I always check how I’m dealing with losses in my family or things that pinch me.
Well, did they pinch me and make me better, or did they pinch me because I’m human and then I could see through it and rest with it? There is light inside. That’s the enlightened being. It’s not a darkroom.
TS: I wonder, maybe, Shunya, if you could give an example of something that’s happened in your life recently that was challenging, and what an awakened response is to a challenging situation? Just very specifically, like, “The pinch felt like this,” but instead of going left, into what would be maybe an emotional response that would be all entangled, there was a seeing through.
AS: Yes, for example, right now, when I’m recording this, I’m in India. Within a 12-hour period, two of my favorite uncles died from COVID. Within a 12-hour period. So, two families were devastated, and I was really fond of my uncles. So, there was loss. I’m also taking care of my aging father, and there is this constant sense of being with death, being with something beloved but that is fragile and transient. Now, when in the past I would deal with actual loss perceived or actual in the moment, I would shallow breathe, or I would go into typical attachments.
I want to hold onto things the way I can control compulsiveness leading to self pity, “Why me?” Leading to then anger with God, or something. Then, catching some more. Instead, I’m here on a service of dharma. I support where I can and I live with birth and death, and I see it everywhere around me. So, I feel my feelings, and yet, I’m more than my feelings. So, I feel like in my own life there’s no certificate if are you enlightened or not, but I’m not definitely neither devastated nor stupidly optimistic. I’m real. I am kind to myself and to the people around me.
I do my duty. Beyond that, I am quiet and I’m inward. People say that my presence has been helpful to them without me saying anything. I think that helps.
TS: Now, Shunya, you said in a sense that you’re old-school, at the same time, you’re bringing forward this ancient tradition, “new fruit to the modern seeker,” I think was the language that you used. I’m curious from an old-school perspective for a moment, are there stages of awakening that we can learn from the tradition, and what are those stages, and what was it like for you to pass through them?
AS: The stages of learning, absolutely. The first stage that happens is when you are listening, and because you are listening to what is universal, what is beyond culture, beyond gender, which is not limited to the physical body alone, this goes into the realm of intelligence and consciousness. We can say that just listening leads to some kind of a philosophical awakening, if I may use that word, or a philosophical liberation of bondages. One starts feeling that one is not just the … one is the soul, and one is not just a role that one is playing.
So, one becomes a little softer in their relationships. So, if I’m just a daughter, I’m going to be clutching to my relatives. But if I am also a soul, playing a role of a daughter, I can bring a lot of discernment, and dharma, and kindness into it, but I can also be a bit detached. So, listening alone takes us to that level of idea. So, my readers of the book will, as you had said, Tami, the first 50 pages itself, you start feeling this ability to be more than who we are in that moment. The next thing happens if you read the book slowly, and maybe go back on it again, or maybe even read it twice, because that’s what these kinds of books do.
Or, you hear it, you just read it out and then you hear yourself. The more you are with it, you will start seeing that you’re contemplating on it even in your dreams. That’s the nature of truth. It need not be logically known. We don’t have to write notes. You just have to hear it through the ear, and then, just think about it, “I’m a soul.” Go through some of those meditations and those insights that I’m guiding people to do. Soon, it becomes part of our thought structure. It’s not just something heard comes out of one ear, goes through another ear. It starts changing our thoughts.
That’s the nature of the Vedic truth. You can’t hear it, thinking nothing will happen to you. You’ll enter this book and you’ll come out the same way. It can be like that. You can’t enter a river and emerge from it dry. That’s the nature of the scripture based deeper Vedic yogic truth. Especially when it is written systematically, and it is written with an eye to support your ego, not fight it, but to support your ego in recognizing your light. If you are filled with light, you can’t avoid it too long. You can’t avoid it too long. So, the second level is, contemplation on it.
The third level of awakening, what happens is that you’re having an argument with someone and it’s a repetitive argument. It’s a karmic situation. You keep meeting the same kind of people who keep stabbing you in the back, or who keep gossiping about. You know those same situations our souls keep walking into? That’s karmic, and I do talk about it in the book, and you shall find that suddenly either you say something or you don’t say something, but you were able to make a change in the karmic matrix. The paradigm has changed. At that level, the changes are falling away, and you have rebuilt yourself.
New capacities, new potential, and that is what I call a mukti moment, or a moksha moment, or a liberation moment, or an infinite moment. You fill your life with a couple of these moksha moments a month, you’re on some serious trajectory. This kind of wisdom supports us, because it’s tried and tested. It is not trying to convert the author, or the sages into gods. It’s not asking you to bow to anyone. It’s asking you to bow to the amazing presence that dwells inside you invisibly, has been with you before you took on the body, will be there after you leave the body. You want to meet that part of you known as atma, the boundless essence.
So, these stages of awakening start happening in the first 50 pages. I can say this, Tami, not because I’m on this bandwagon of, “Oh, I wrote this book that’s going to awaken you every moment.” I’m saying this because this knowledge that I have faithfully communicated is designed to awaken. It’s designed to get you out of any illusions of limitations and doubts, and self-hatred that you may be experiencing. So, it worked for me. It’s worked for countless people. It will work for the reader, too.
TS: Just a point of clarification, Shunya, what did you mean, as you were describing the second stage of awakening, involving supporting someone’s ego as part of that? I wasn’t quite clear about that.
AS: Oh, thank you for asking that question. So, there are various traditions that have come out of India. We are all aware that India is a place that has been the springboard of lots and lots of philosophies and traditions. Then, there are some systems of thought and awakening that ask you to dissolve your ego, or give up your ego, or surrender your ego to a god or someone like that. This Vedic tradition says your ego is not the bad guy. This is the core Vedic tradition, because it was a householder tradition. It says, you’re yearning. Even if a robber is yearning to rob the bank, the robber is not evil, the robber is not evil.
The robber is simply misguided in remembering that abundance is their birthright. There is no evilness, there’s only ignorance and forgetfulness. So, if we can take someone who’s in prison because they robbed a bank, and remind them the world’s treasures lie inside you, then, that impulse of robbing a bank, it’s nothing. We’re all misguided. We’re all forgotten. We’re all trying to find the love and the lover when it lives inside us. We are trying to find delicious rasa, or juiciness, or taste in food when all the creativity and bliss lies within us.
That’s why you can’t eat cheesecake forever. After the first few bites, you’re done, why? Because it’s you who puts the taste in the cheesecake. Then, you put it the taste in the coffee. Then, you put the taste in the chicory. So, in everything, you are the truth and this ego is misguided, it’s like a lost child. All we have to do is all lost children come home, listen to this knowledge, Vedic knowledge, and my book is a lot like somebody forgot where they come from. Somebody is lost in a city. Somebody is busy robbing a bank when they’re actually a king back home. We’ve all forgotten, we’re all having spiritual amnesia, under the spell of what I call maya.
Then, we start reading this book and slowly memories start coming back of, “Oh, I am an amazing being. I have all this power inside me, soul power, atma shakti. I have all these creativity untapped. I have all these abilities.” So, the whole Vedic tradition was about reminding somebody that you’re walking around saying, “Where is the treasure? Where is the treasure?” It’s buried right inside you. So, I give the story, in conclusion, which Baba gave me, that somebody lost their necklace of pearls and they were looking and looking, but then, their friend who’s like the teacher said, “But you are still wearing it.”
So, they had forgotten it. So, it’s like a coming back home and then we take that same ego and love it, and inform it of its own light nature, truth. Lo and behold, we are surprised that that same mind/ego starts behaving like a friend. We start hearing voices from within, Tami, that guide us. We start behaving in ethical manners to our own surprise. We’re about to yell at someone and we realize we have forgiveness within us. We were about to run away, but we stand and take a stand. Who starts guiding us?
That same ego, because now it knows, “I’m one with the stars and the moon and God, and the wind. I am not an isolated, scared little thing flipping about.” So, it is a case of loving the ego, supporting it, rehabilitating it on this planet.
TS: Now, Shunya, you mentioned that you became the lineage holder of your family lineage when you were just 24. You’re the first female lead of your lineage, a 2000-year-old Indian Vedic lineage. I’m curious to know, as a female carrying the lineage, if you feel there are certain ways that you want to express these teachings that are perhaps different than have been expressed previously, and even more than expressed, is there some evolution that’s required within the lineage? Some way at this time for it to be embodied by a woman, expressed by a woman, available to women that there needs to be an evolution of the lineage, or not?
AS: The founders of our lineage, the human founders, so every lineage, of Vedic lineage, Vedic yogic lineage, so Vedas, just for our listeners who don’t know the difference between Veda and yoga, Vedas are the source tradition of yoga, which we practice and use. Now, in the Vedic yogic lineage, we always have some divine elements and some human elements. The human elements actually begin with a male seer and a female seer, Vasishtha and Arundhati, they were a pair, a partner. Their ashram was in the same, from my hometown where I come from, Ayodhya, they had a 40-acre ashram, and they are talked about in the Rigveda.
After that, there’s been mostly male. When we chant and talk about all our teachers, and we have memory of all the masters that came in our lineage, they’re all men. Despite there being a woman in the beginning, India went through this male androcentric phase. Whereas women teachers were known in the Vedas, they were called brahmavadinis and rishikas. Males were also known as rishis, so I’m a rishika, but we had this male phase. The male teachers somehow separated it, because men often are able to make any system of knowledge slightly more intellectual. It’s just the way they approach it.
Women have a lot more emotional quotient. It’s a well-known fact, it’s not good or bad, it’s just how it is. So, when I reinterpret the Bhagavad Gita, or I teach … my teachings in Sovereign Self come from the filter of emotional intelligence too, along with the intellectual. So, I feel it makes it more whole. Another thing is that because I’m a householder teacher, I bring to it real-life narratives around, say, a divorce, or a separation, or being a single mother. My students are like that too, 80% of my students are women from all over the world. So, I [inaudible] in their stories, and I feel that women are the leading edge of consciousness, and they always had a voice, and they must have a voice again.
Another thing I noticed with the male, the masculinization of the Vedic yogic teachings was that it became about … there was this trend because men were trying to prove how good they are by being celibate in our tradition. “If I can be celibate, if I can somehow control my sperm from coming out, I’m somehow superior, and this is the proof of my holiness.” Then, we would find, not all, but some teachers with their pants down, or their robes down. Feminine teachers, because they are not capable of this kind of declarations, the way our physiology is made, the way we carry a womb, and especially if you come from a householder tradition, we’ve had babies.Which means you’ve had sex, and it’s just a much more real and organic journey that I want to bring.
That’s why in all my teachings, including Sovereign Self, I keep talking about these things. I need not, but I talk about the importance of being celibate very intentionally, and not just because it’s a prescription, and not just because it makes us feel superior energy around that. So, the feminine energy is needed, and I’m so grateful that my grandfather saw in me, he saw in me before I saw in me, that’s a job of a guru, that I would be able to be an advocate of very real Vedic yogic teachings in the modern era.
TS: OK, I’m going to ask you. I think it’s a little bit of a challenging question, Shunya, which is, in the acknowledgements of the book, you thanked your grandfather. You call him Baba, your teacher, and you say that to you he was someone who is God incarnate. I had a moment when I read that, and I thought to myself, “Is anybody really God incarnate?” We’re human beings. We all have human flaws, foibles. Is anybody really like that, or is that a projection onto the perfect guru? So, I’m curious what you have to say about that.
AS: It could be a projection. It could be fancy writing, but ultimately, Tami, the Vedas are spiritual teachings and they talk about God. But then, they don’t talk about a god who is a person. All the male and female versions of God– Shiva, Lakshmi, Parvati– they don’t belong to the Vedic teachings. They come in the later Hinduism. The Vedas talk about– the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita talk about– pure consciousness as God. Ishvara is a term of God, and Ishvara comes from the root word isham, which means light, which dwells in all beings.
Many people say that Hindus believe in many gods, but those many gods, countless gods, are really only representations of that one truth. So, when I say somebody is God incarnate, here’s what I think. The job of God, or the Great Omniscient Dimension, as I defined it in the Vedas, or in my book rather, the Great Omniscient Dimension, that great intelligence, that great source, its job is to … it says, manifestation, maintenance, and dissolution. This is what’s happening. This is the triangle. There is this great intelligence from which we emerge, in which we dance, and which we dissolve.
Somehow, there is this grand big housekeeping happening, and that is known as Ishvara or God, which is ultimately formless. Ishvara is a gender-neutral word, and it is not an anthropomorphic god. So, when I look at a guru who can help manifest from you your true being, help you, gives you those tools, helps you live that through the knowledge, and helps you then extinguish your ignorance in that knowledge, from that perspective, I would say that if I had to look at someone who really took a place of support, protection, guidance, and even collection in terms of ignorance, I would say that was Baba.
In my book, I don’t talk about karma yoga, or surrender to the god presence, or god principle. I take pride in pointing out how we can be an atheist agnostic. We can love God as Jesus, Allah, Rama, Shiva, Guru Nanak, Buddha, or we can believe in a non-dual consciousness and we are still within touch of something supreme. Yes.
TS: Yes. Now, Shunya, your book, I’m just going to say it like it is, it evoked in me a deep longing for the depths of the spiritual journey in a beautiful way. I think it will do that for any sincere reader who comes to the book. One of the things you point out is how a lot of what we’re engaged in in the world today, as spiritual journeyers, is something that you call drive-through spirituality. Drive-through spirituality, meaning, “My true teacher is an app that I use for five minutes a day,” or something.
I’m exaggerating to make a point, but I’m not really exaggerating all that much. Part of what I was reflecting on as I was reading Sovereign Self is how in some ways Sounds True could be contributing to drive-through spirituality, and how I don’t want to do that. How I want in my own life for myself to have a deep and genuine journey, and to make sure that other people have that, too. So, my question to you is, how do we avoid the pitfalls of drive-through spirituality?
AS: Wow. First of all, thank you, Tami. That was a searingly honest self-look. Whatever is the conclusion, that’s up to you, but to be able to even do that, I’m so proud that you are my book’s publisher. I’ve looked at that. I have at times being tempted to be that, because that’s the wave, that’s the drive-through wave and it’s so easy to become a saleperson. There are two kinds of contribution to drive-through spirituality. One is intentional, one is unintentional. So, unintentional, I think, in Kali Yuga, or the dark era as the Vedas call it, is forgivable, but the intentional one takes that hard look.
I think by publishing these deeper books like mine almost pure to … There has been amazing editing, but there was no control of the content to say, “You know what? Make it lighter, make it dumber, make it appeal to some people.” It is deep, it is real, and it’s hard-hitting at times. I’m aware that Sounds True is publishing more such books, and I think this will help balance to bring out more true voices, true sounds out in the universe, this will help balance it. I’m glad to hear that this arouses a deep yearning because the Vedas recognize that they’ve all been born with that yearning, except that sometimes they get distracted by pleasure, pleasure seeking, or money seeking and wealth seeking.
But then, when that is being taken care of, automatically, this yearning becomes stronger and stronger. I’m the kind of teacher who becomes the balm for those people who are genuinely looking for a real path. They are not just looking for a mantra, a 20-minute meditation, an exercise, or here is a guru worship ritual. They are looking for the real deal, and in my book I tried to offer it honestly. As for whether Sounds True will become a drive-through spirituality promoter of it, my organization, Awakened Self will do that. That is for people like you and I to constantly do our work, ask ourselves those hard questions, and continue to show up in a most authentic space as possible.
That’s what I would say. But if I have one minute, I’d like to say this, that there was a time when I was just sitting and teaching from the scriptures. Then, a big deal happened when I started posting smaller pieces on my social media. Now, from an Acharya perspective, or a master teacher perspective, it feels like I’m dumbing down my knowledge. But I realize that I’m also meeting the people where they’re at. I don’t have to dumb it down, it just has to be a bit shorter, and it has to be a more … It has to be authentic but easy to digest.
So, I’ve been giving myself simple missions, that at every place I ask myself, “Am I compromising the truth, or am I serving the truth?” If I’m serving the truth, I can go to bed peacefully.
TS: Now, something else I wanted to ask you about, Shunya, is a phrase that I was introduced to in reading your extended bio, which is enlightened vulnerability. You write that you encourage your students to embrace their humanity and abide in their greater power simultaneously. This creates an enlightened vulnerability. I wanted to hear more about what that means, enlightened vulnerability.
AS: Vulnerability is not a new topic, and there are some Sounds True authors who have done a great work, like Brene Brown and others. Thankfully, finally, humanity can accept that they’re vulnerable. But then, I also noticed that sometimes if you don’t bring the word enlightened, or the attitude of enlightened vulnerability together, sometimes, being vulnerable can spin off into self pity, feeling entitled to remain vulnerable, and not ever going into a quest to find this invincible part of you, this avinashi, indestructible part of you, this sanatana, eternal part of you, this searing power that’s still untapped.
So, what I wanted my students to do when I started teaching, and I met people who were either suppressing their vulnerability, or over dramatically, it was not real, so people misunderstand and they were either weak or they were like tight-lipped about it. So, I said, “You know what? Bring it on. Bring it on. Bring it on that you’re afraid. Bring it on that we’re scared, we feel guilty for no reason, especially if you’re a woman. We have shame, and all of that, let’s bring it on. Now, let’s see what the Vedas are telling us. How can we have conscious anger versus unconscious anger? How can we understand guilt from a lit up, enkindled with wisdom perspective? Then, live with it.”
So, for example, I talked about my father, who happens to be my only surviving family member, often. I’ve had, most of the people I have loved have passed away early. So, this is a vulnerable part of me where I feel biologically alone. I even talked about it in the book. But then, I bring some enlightened attitudes into it.
“Am I really alone? What is this aloneness imposed by the great source asking me to do? Why was this aloneness given to me in this designer universe with multiple galaxies?Why did this huge big intelligence choose me to be alone biologically? I have a huge spiritual family, but be alone biologically, why? Why? What’s the purpose behind it?”
I realized that the purpose was that I had to go to my discomfort and then come through and find out that I’m not alone at all. I have myself with me. I have a whole spiritual family growing in leaps and bounds, of genuine sincere honest seekers. So, this was all designed what was happening to me, because there’s a good chance that if everybody was alive, and my first marriage was working, and I was just sitting in my home cooking food, and remembering that Baba gave me that knowledge. “Oh, yes, I too belonged to a lineage but in modern days, who can keep up with a lineage?”
But it didn’t work out that way. The perfect marriage to a millionaire didn’t work. The family members who had once filled my house with voices, and happiness, and songs, and spiritual, all passed away too early. And then, I was clutching to my father, Tami. Then, I said, “I will not clutch. I will not clutch to my son, who lives far away from me abroad. I will not clutch to my current partner. I will not clutch anyone.” Then, began the embracing of the self, and embracing of a bigger family that is a whole new story for me.
So, enlightened vulnerability allows me to talk about my stuff. I don’t have to pretend to not be affected by things, and yet, I can bring light into it. So, it’s working. It’s working for me, and it’s slowly working for the people who read my stuff or learn from it.
TS: One final question, Shunya. I think many of the listeners who tune in to this podcast, Insights at the Edge, are seeking deeper meaning in their life. There’s a very interesting part of Sovereign Self where you talked about how meaning is not something that we add to our life. You write in very strong language, and you have this power in Sovereign Self where you claimed things, you state them. As you’ve been using this word searing, it has a searing impact on the listener, the reader. You write, “I affirm that our life is meaningful, period.”
You write out the word period, but it’s not about something outside of ourselves. I would just like you to end by addressing that listener who’s looking for deeper meaning in their life.
AS: I think if the journey is from bondage to sovereignty, from shadow to light, from feeling afraid to feeling powerful, then we have to look at all the things we thought are giving meaning to us. Like being the daughter of a family gives me meaning, or being the teacher of a certain set of students gives me meaning, or having a best-seller under my pocket gives me meaning. All that is fine until all these works for me. But the day the students are not there, or the family passes away, or say, “I’m not able to deliver another big seller,” does it mean that my meaning will end?
Does it mean I’m going to go into a depression? Isn’t that what happens? We ascribe way too much meaning to the things that are flowing from us. So, at the end of the day, I do everything. I’m a daughter, a mother, a wife, a teacher, I’m a gardener, I’m a philanthropist, I write books, I’m an author, I’m a speaker, but at the end of the day, I’m Shunya, which means I’m empty of all these roles. I just become quiet into this invisible powerful presence that can be or become anything. You can wear any hat for a week, or season, a lifetime, or a couple of lifetimes, but it is not that.
What that allows me to do is I’m able to take back the power and the emotional investment I made into all these roles. I’m ready to be. Here’s what my students are amazed at, that when my foundation is doing well, and things are working for us, I’m the same. When things don’t go my way, I’m still the same. The reason is that my meaning doesn’t come from them. These meaningful things come from me. That’s the difference, this me is a big, and this me is not in bondage of those things, those ducks lining up a certain way.
This is very important for us, for sincere seekers, we have to discover our true self beyond our vocations, and our professions, and our hobbies, using our biological and psychological, or even imaginary associations on things like that. We have to be able to go inwards and claim that truth, which is formless. Then, life begins at another level.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Acharya Shunya, she’s the author of a gorgeous book, it’s called Sovereign Self: Claim Your Inner Joy and Freedom with the Empowering Wisdom of the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita. It’s the kind of book to read, to study, to contemplate, and then, to read, study and contemplate again, and then to give to your friends, and then, read, study, and contemplate again. I say that because of what it evoked in my experience. Reading the book, Sovereign Self, it really brings forward your own power and sovereignty.
Acharya Shunya, what a joy to talk with you here, and I hope I have the chance to be with you in person sometime. I would really value that and enjoy it. I’m so moved by you and inspired, thank you.
Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and also if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe, we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com, waking up the world.