In recent years the term “safe space” has been utilized by young people at tertiary level educational institutions to demand they be free from hearing political and social debate that they disagree with. Some find this view exceedingly immature and unrealistic because we live as part of a society with differing world-views and to force upon everyone a monolithic view would be oppressive and totalitarian.
However, this desire, at its heart, is spiritual in nature. In this talk we explore the spiritual principle of “taking shelter”, real shelter and false shelter.
One of the quotes I used comes from Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada:
This world of maya is called durasraya, which means “false or bad shelter.” One who puts his faith in durasraya becomes a candidate for hoping against hope. In the material world everyone is trying to become happy, and although their material attempts are baffled in every way, due to their nescience they cannot understand their mistakes. People try to rectify one mistake by making another mistake. This is the way of the struggle for existence in the material world. If one in this condition is advised to take to the path of self-realization and be happy, he does not accept such instructions.
Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya
Namaste. So before speaking I will offer my respects to my spiritual teachers, our lineage and to the Supreme.
aum ajnana timirandhasya jnananjana salakaya
caksur unmilitam yena tasmai sri gurave namah
bhaja sri krishna caitanya prabhu nityananda
sri advaita gadadhara srivasadi gaura bhakta vrnda
he krishna karuna sindho dina bandho jagat pate
gopesa gopika kanta radha kanta namo ‘stu te
aum namo bhagavate vasudevaya
So the topic tonight that we’re going to talk about, We All Need a Safe Space. I’ll just read a little thing that I wrote as part of the promo, because I think it sets up everything nicely.
In recent years the term “safe space” has been utilized by younger people at tertiary level educational institutions; universities, colleges, to demand they be free from hearing political and social debate that they disagree with. Of course, some people find this view exceedingly immature and unrealistic because we live as part of a society with differing world-views, and to force upon everyone a monolithic view would be oppressive and totalitarian.
I’m just speaking here of the principle, not wanting to get into any debate on social or political issues. So while I’ve made that comment in relation to certain people’s desire for a safe space, the desire at its very heart is actually connected to our spiritual nature. And so what I’d like to do tonight is to go beyond the superficiality of, or the mundaneness of conventional material life and try to look at a spiritual perspective.
So we see that people really have this desire to be totally in control of their environment, and that’s understandable. Again it’s unrealistic, because we are not supremely powerful. However it’s kind of like we have this desire to be independent, completely and supremely independent and at the same time to also be powerful. So people use this term thinking that to be dependent is a weakness and inherently flawed. So that’s sort of like the position of the materialist.
So like you hear in the public discourse the often repeated phrase, “a strong woman,” and that’s sort of attributed to historically women have played a supportive role, if I’ll use that term, but now everybody no longer wants to sort of be in that position. There is this desire for everybody to have the same power in society. So there’s this tendency of people to—and I’m not talking about women, I’m talking about just in general, people in general, there’s this—well let me just roll back a little bit.
In using these terms like “strong”, or the word “strength”, it really depends on how people define that. Somebody could be playing a supportive role and be exceedingly strong. For instance, within institutions like the military, where a chain of authority is necessary to be able to function well in a combat environment, people need to be supportive of the higher officers, otherwise you have a complete breakdown. And so you can see the lower ranked individuals within a military organization, while they are being very supportive and even dependent upon orders given, they are by no means weak. And so I think that’s an example of how a person can assume or take on a particular role, and that may seem to be dependent, yet at the same time is a role of tremendous strength. It requires great strength.
In this world, wanting to be independent and powerful and strong, it’s like people tend to want to put on a brave face. So people want to not show weakness and vulnerability, and so we have this tendency in this world to fundamentally be dishonest, because we’re often afraid that if we demonstrate some vulnerability or dependency that we will be perceived as weak, and that is considered a bad thing. And so what we have is a lot of people ending up going about in life putting on a bit of a brave face.
And what I’ll do, I’ll kind of use an example of like when people get together in social gatherings, a party or something, and everybody’s sort of like mingling, and people are kind of like a little bit nervous about how they’re being perceived by others. And so there is this tendency to want to show that you’re intelligent, you’re brave, you’re witty, you’ve got it together, you’re complete in every sense of that word, and you interact with others on that basis. But in reality, what we’re often—the underlying reality is that you have a bunch of, and I’ll use the analogy of half-filled cups pretending to be full cups. And people are looking at each other and interacting with each other and thinking, “Oh that person is full. They’ve got the full cup, and if I hang out with them, if I become friends with them or connected with them, then perhaps it will fill up my emptiness, that which I feel to be missing in our lives.”
So what we really need to do, and what is often the case, is people have unrealistic expectations of what life is and what it should be. There is this tendency (and the selfie culture the social media culture has made this even more pronounced) where everybody wants to project an image of completeness, of fullness and that everything is great and fantastic. But in our individual lives (and we’ve spoken about this a lot) people feel different degrees of emptiness practically all the time. We have a tendency to want to be busy socially and personally so that we are not faced with having to consider what’s my true situation.
The reality is, if we try to create a perfectly safe space for us for ourself in this world we are fundamentally going to fail. Everybody has this desire, just like the picture that I used on the front slate of this video that we’re doing, at the beginning of the talk. You’ve got a baby lying in its parent’s arms, and it looks so content and safe, and it’s all just like everything is—so they give off this image that they are utterly and totally protected. And this image appeals to us because it is like this is a desire of our own heart to be in a place of being protected, of being absolutely comforted and comfortable, that we have shelter; but the problem is the nature of the world that we are dealing with.
So I’m going to use the example of Lord Buddha. He was raised as a young prince, Siddhartha, and he was completely protected by his parents, and he was not allowed to see the realities of life. And so as a very young man he kind of snuck out of the palace with a chariot driver and went for a cruise, for the first time ever, on his own, through the city in which they lived. He observed a person that was stricken, gravely stricken, with disease, and he had never seen anything like this. And he asked the driver, “What is this?” And the driver told him about how people at periods in their life can be stricken with very grave illness which causes tremendous suffering. That kind of really blew his mind that this kind of thing happens.
Further on he saw a very old person that was bent over and hardly able to move, in a very wrinkled and decrepit condition, their body. And he was stunned by this, “What is this?” And he was told, “Well, this is old age, and this also happens to everyone if they live a normal length of life, that everybody will encounter this. It’s inescapable.”
And further on he encountered a funeral procession. Of course, in India the funeral processions, they have the body uncovered, just with some cloth over the body, and maybe some flowers, and it’s being carried on a litter on the shoulders of some men, and the body is being transported to the crematorium where, in front of anybody that wants to watch, the body is burned on a funeral pyre, piles of wood. And this was absolutely shocking to him, asking what this was, the driver told him, “This is death,” that every single person is going to face this experience. And this was so utterly shocking to Siddhartha that he set aside the world and went off to deeply contemplate and meditate this material condition.
So this principle is very central to many spiritual paths. Birth is always going to be followed by disease, old age and then death, and then at death one will be again forced to take another body, there will be another birth. And this situation he considered to be the real problem, the real obstacle to be faced, because if we were mindful of these realities, we would realize that there is no safe space, there is no safe position, there is no complete shelter from these experiences. Which then, of course, led him to seek and to try and understand what then is spiritual liberation. How does the living being, the soul itself, the living being, become free from this repeated cycle of birth and death? Is there some shelter to actually be had?
In this world we’re all looking in different ways for shelter, but mostly the shelter that people seek and try to take is what is classified as durasraya. Durasraya means false shelter. The word asraya means shelter and durasraya means false shelter. You see a little child that feels utterly protected by their parents, and they feel that their parents can protect them from everything, and that’s actually a false idea. If a child becomes scared by a barking dog or some sudden loud noise or something like that happens, they immediately run into their mother’s arms or their father, crying and looking to be protected. And in many situations, yes, the parents can offer some protection and shelter. But, for instance, in the case of a severe earthquake when everything is moving, when the terrified child runs into the arms of the parents, the parents cannot save the child from what is happening. They don’t—or can’t, save the child from an impending collapse of the building that they are suddenly in. Or if they’ve been hit by a tsunami, the child is hoping that they will be safe, but they may be swept away by a tsunami or caught trapped in a collapsed building along with the parents that was supposedly going to offer them shelter.
In this world people seek shelter in so many different ways. The use of intoxicants is a desire to be sheltered. People want to escape the mundaneness of life, so alcohol and drugs and other stimulants provide an extremely temporary escape, and it doesn’t make anybody’s life actually better and can lead to a worsening of their situation.
My spiritual master Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, he made a comment that I always remember, in a commentary on a book written by one of our famous spiritual teachers in our lineage from 500 years ago, Srila Rupa Goswami. In speaking, or making comment, on one particular verse he wrote the following, and I’ll just reiterate before you read, this word maya will come up, and the word maya is, it means illusion (and we’ve done some other talks on that, and I invite you to look at that, on the nature of illusion ) beginning from this idea that this world is my home, that I can find perfect happiness here, that I can be fulfilled here, that I can be safe here, actually make a home, and none of that is actually true. So he states:
“[in the] world of maya is called durasraya, which means ‘false or bad shelter.’ One who puts his faith in durasraya becomes a candidate for hoping against hope.”
So I’ll just pause there for a moment. I don’t know how familiar everybody is with this term, “hoping against hope.” It means having false hope, when you are hoping that something will happen, but it never can and it never will, then you are said to be hoping against hope. So he’s describing this world as being durasraya, or false or bad shelter and,
“One who puts his faith in durasraya becomes a candidate for hoping against hope. In the material world everyone is trying to become happy, and although their material attempts are baffled in every way, due to their nescience [or ignorance] they cannot understand their mistakes. People try to rectify one mistake by making another mistake. [And] this is the way of the struggle for existence in the material world. If one in this condition is advised to take to the path of self-realization and be happy, he does not accept such instructions.
So it’s like, whoa, that’s kind of—some people may think that that’s harsh, but it’s actually just incredibly realistic. You see these situations where people look for love in this world, and they don’t approach looking for a partner in life from a very intelligent perspective, they normally do it from a highly emotional perspective. And so they choose a person, and sometimes the choice that they make in a partner was not well thought out, and the marriage becomes absolutely horrible, and they divorce. And then one or both partners may feel incredibly terrible by what happened, and then feeling all this emptiness and heartache they then seek to fill up that emptiness in their heart by trying to find someone else; and not actually learning from the first experience they make the same or similar mistakes in choosing someone else.
We can use this example, or this idea, in so many different ways. You know, when—addictions are always like this, where—or the use of things to try and alleviate my emptiness, and I try something, and it seems to be working at first but then later it’s not. And so then I want to kind of like turn up the volume. I try to cover up my bad choice with an even worse choice, as it were. So this idea of, one of the characteristics we see in the modern world of, as I mentioned, the use of alcohol and intoxicant stimulants, the mindless absorption in social media where people spend hours every day just looking at other people’s lives in the hope of finding some meaning or fulfillment, getting lost in the world of gaming where you can just continuously chase imaginary things on a screen, getting lost in pornography, getting lost in Youtube, all of these things demonstrate, they’re clear demonstrations of people seeking shelter in that which is a false or bad shelter that ends up making their life and their situation worse. It doesn’t actually provide any solutions.
So on one hand everybody is wanting to be strong and independent and be making their own decisions not seeing that many of their decisions have been put in their mind by other individuals or other forces. We, on the one hand, want to be independent and strong, but on the other hand we’re constantly looking for shelter. And what this does is it points to what is actually part of our spiritual nature, to not only want, but to need shelter.
I will read another commentary from one of my spiritual masters speaking about this principle from the platform of Vedic teachings. He says,
“In this world there are two principles operating: One principle is the origin or shelter of everything, and the other principle is deduced from this original principle. The Supreme Truth is the shelter of all manifestations and is called āśraya. All other principles, which remain under the control of the āśraya-tattva, or the Absolute Truth, are called āśrita, or subordinate corollaries and reactions. The purpose of the material manifestation is to give the conditioned soul a chance to attain liberation and return to the āśraya-tattva, or the Absolute Truth.”
So he’s making this point, that there is, from the spiritual perspective, a shelter, and that shelter is what—He is referenced here as being the highest or the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Truth. All other things have the nature of asrita. They are seeking shelter. So when we speak about self-realization (and this is something we’ve mentioned before) self-realization means that I have to experience the reality, I need to answer the questions of what is my essence, what is my position, and what is my natural function. These are the three aspects that make up complete self-realization.
It is possible to have partial self-realization, where one only realizes their essence that I am a spiritual being, that’s the extent of it. My position tells me where I fit in relation to this world and in relation to all other living beings. My natural function is, what does the spiritual being, the soul itself, when all material covering is removed, what do I do? How do I act? What are the activities of the soul?
So here we are dealing with the second question, what is my position, meaning, where do I fit? If we have these two principles, that which offers shelter or refuge, and that which seeks shelter, they seek and need shelter and refuge, where do I fit? And if I am in the category of needing shelter or refuge, where exactly can I find it?
To understand where I fit in relation to others I often quote a Vedic text, and I hope it will come up on the screen when I start reading it. This particular text is found in two of the Upanisads, the Svetasvatara Upanisad and the Katha Upanisad, where these two lines are repeated in both of these places. And in the Sanskrit it goes
nityo nityanam, cetanas cetananam
eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman
So this is—I’ll just give you the English translation:
“He is the eternal among all eternal entities and the chief conscious being among all conscious beings. And among many living entities, He is the chief, who fulfills their desires.”
So this is an explanation of the principle that amongst all living beings there is one that is quite unique and different, I mean like completely unique and different, who is said to be the chief eternal or the principal or primary eternal being amongst all other beings.
This same principle was addressed by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra when he first raises—or introduces the reader of the sutras to someone that he describes as Isvara. This word Isvara means the Supreme Controller, and he was describing how one can attain the highest platform of spiritual realization and experience by complete surrender to Isvara. And then defining what he means by Isvara he has the following verses—but before I read them I just want to make the point that Patanjali frequently refers to the individual living being, the spiritual being residing within each body, as purusa. This word purusa literally means a person, and so all living beings are described as purusa, and this term is also used throughout the Vedas. So he begins by stating that,
“Isvara is a special purusa unlike other purusas.”
So this is a really interesting thing to note that amongst all living beings there is one that—he uses the Sanskrit term purusa visesa, which means that a unique purusa that is different from all other purusas. So:
“Isvara is a special purusa unlike other purusas, being untouched by afflictions, actions (meaning material activity) and the fruits of actions, karma phalam, and latent impressions or material desires.
In Him the seed of omniscience is unsurpassed (meaning infinite).
He is also the Teacher of all ancient teachers (or sages), being not limited by time.
And the transcendental sound personifying Him is aum.”
So he has just outlined very briefly an extraordinary and unique personality that is different than all other spiritual beings, and he terms this personality as being Isvara, the Supreme Lord, or the Supreme Controller.
So what we’re getting to here is an increasingly refined definition of who or what is asraya, the actual shelter for you and me and for all living beings. So I’ll read a verse from the Bhagavad-gita, from the 9th chapter where Krishna declares to Arjuna:
“I am the goal, the sustainer, the master, the witness, the abode, the refuge and the most dear friend. I am the creation and the annihilation, the basis of everything, the resting place and the eternal seed.”
So here we have this very clear statement by Krishna, that Isvara, or Bhagavan, or the Supreme Soul, has these characteristics. And some of the things that we read was that He is the sustainer, and He is the refuge, and He is the dear friend of all. So this word as I mentioned, asraya, it means the—it actually can be used as the resting place or the shelter.
So referencing once again that image of a baby cuddled up in its parents arms, feeling utterly safe and protected, you know, that image applies to the soul itself. We desire such a safe place. We desire such a resting place, a refuge. And here it has been declared that there is an extraordinarily wonderful personality who has this characteristic of actually being the shelter for all.
So the two terms that they use are asraya, meaning the shelter or refuge, and asrita, which means the one seeking refuge or shelter; it also can mean being dependent, that thing that we want to avoid no matter what, but is actually part of our eternal spiritual nature. Bhagavan Sri Krishna or Iswara is called the asraya-tattva (this word tattva means truth), and everything else is called the asrita-tattva meaning the dependent energy.
So in the material condition we really want to try and avoid as much as possible and not recognize what is our real situation. In listening to some of the things I’ve been mentioning someone will go, “Well, I don’t believe in that,” and I always have a little bit of a chuckle, because, having come from that space, I know the mentality all too well, where I think that if I believe in it or believe in something it is therefore true, and if I choose not to believe in it because I dislike it, or for whatever reason, then it can’t possibly be true. And it’s sort of like, wow, that’s not a very thoughtful or intelligent position.
One of the characteristics of the human condition is that we do suffer from four defects. These four defects that we all possess in the mundane condition: the first is called sabda brahma which means the tendency to commit mistakes. I mean if we embrace this reality that yeah, I do sometimes commit mistakes. Then you have pramada. which means we are subject to illusion. We can be deeply illusioned about things. And then the third is vipra lipsa?? which means there is this tendency to cheat, to cheat others and even ourselves. And then the final one is the fact that our senses are fundamentally imperfect. There is sensory inefficiency, as it’s sometimes described.
And given I have these four characteristics in the mundane condition I should be very doubtful of all my conclusions. I shouldn’t be overly confident, “Oh I don’t believe that! I don’t accept that!” That’s fine, you don’t have to. Nobody’s requiring you to. But I think that if all of us want to really find the shelter that we seek, and we actually need, then there is a tremendous need to be both open-minded and to be willing to explore things, to explore spiritual truth.
After Arjuna—in the Bhagavad-gita you had a warrior prince Arjuna, who was utterly, utterly distraught in the beginning of this book, this work, utterly distraught in what he was about to face, this monumental battle where you had blood relatives, family members, warring against each other. And he wanted to flee the battlefield, feeling that it would be destructive for him, that spiritually he would be ruined by participating in this activity. And he turned to Krishna for direction and advice, and Krishna walked him quite methodically through a number of different spiritual principles and ancient Vedic teachings, finally arriving at a situation where everything was revealed to Arjuna with great clarity. And having heard all of these things, not just superficially, but having realized these truths that were being presented, in this highly enlightened state Arjuna makes the following statement, and I’ll read this verse from the Bhagavad-gita:
“You are the original Personality of Godhead, the oldest, the ultimate sanctuary of this manifested cosmic world. You are the knower of everything, and You are all that is knowable. You are the supreme refuge, above the material modes. O limitless form! This whole cosmic manifestation is pervaded by You.”
So Arjuna had come to this realization. The realization doesn’t mean you’ve accepted an idea, it means it has become a manifest reality to you. That is what realization is, where he had been gifted with this clarity of vision, and seeing everything with such clarity he recognized that this person he was addressing was in fact the Supreme Soul incarnated here and manifest before him, that this was the Supreme Soul, who was factually the ultimate sanctuary of this entire manifested cosmic world, that He was the knower of everything, and that He was the supreme refuge.
As a result of that realization Arjuna now took the position of surrender to Krishna, just as Patanjali describes that by complete surrender to Isvara one may be gifted with the highest spiritual realization and experience. So that message is also there in the Bhagavad-gita.
Just as a side point, if anybody would like to do a summary study of the Bhagavad-gita then you can take a look on my website. I have a series called the Bhagavad-gita Chalisa (LINK ) where we look at 40 verses from the Bhagavad-gita that fundamentally lay out the essential message of the Gita. And if you go through that you will have a good understanding of what the essential teaching was of the Bhagavad-gita.
So we see that Arjuna took the position of completely surrendering to Krishna, and agreeing to engage in this horrible and ghastly warfare, but from a position of great detachment, he performed his duty as was required of him, and as a result he was untouched by the whole experience of this war.
So we saw that after surrendering he—it’s not like one becomes weak and feckless, that there is the material perception that by surrendering we become weak, but this surrendering is not—this surrendering is the giving up of the false idea that I can be supreme, that I can be utterly independent, that I do not need anyone or anything; and that is not true. I mean we have the saying, “No man is an island unto himself.” This is the reality. And when one in great humility surrenders to Krishna his will, then in doing that one can be incredibly strong.
We see this in the life of great spiritual teachers, how they move through this world and are untouched by it. They can face the most extraordinary difficulty and tremendous challenges but be unmoved by any of that. And when the time comes for them to depart from this world their departure is nothing less than heroic and extraordinarily—it’s a wonderful thing. It’s a glorious thing.
So taking shelter, seeking refuge, is our spiritual nature; and it is an act of reuniting with the supreme shelter, and in doing that becoming whole and complete again, and not being weak and disenfranchised. No. One becomes very strong. There is a great spiritual force that now pervades one’s being when one undertakes this spiritual surrender.
So, thank you very much for taking the time out to be with us this evening, and I hope that you take this message on board. It’s extraordinarily important, and it can transform a person’s life.
So we will have a short kirtan to end, because it is by this process of chanting spiritual sound that the realization of these truths becomes experienced, and one can become complete and whole, fulfilled, completely sheltered by this meditation upon these spiritual sounds. So I will chant the mahamantra.