From Back to Godhead
Stress, according to The World Health Organization, is the “health epidemic of the 21st century.” Demanding circumstances make us tense mentally, emotionally, and physically, and over time that tension takes a serious toll on our wellbeing. While there are many ways to deal with stress, one often overlooked and highly effective way is to cultivate a state of inner satisfaction. The word satisfaction, meaning the pleasure derived from the fulfillment of one’s wishes, expectations, or needs, comes from a Latin root meaning “content.” Unmet wishes, expectations, or needs, however, can cause dissatisfaction and stress. Such stress and dissatisfaction may impel us to make profound changes in our lives – they may impel us to strive for something different and better. The question is which “different and better” thing we decide to strive for.
Why Does Satisfaction Elude Me?
Most people want wealth and sensual satisfaction, and their stress is due to feeling that they don’t have enough of these. But unfortunately, striving for wealth and striving for sensual satisfaction are unhelpful in reducing stress and dissatisfaction. In fact, these aspirations only increase our problems. In the words of Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.22.33), “For human society, constantly thinking of how to earn money and apply it for sense gratification brings about the destruction of everyone’s interests.”
At present we’re considered “conditioned souls” because, due to our imperfect desires, we’re dependent on material conditions for our satisfaction; and in the final analysis, material conditions will never satisfy us. Actual satisfaction will come when we realize who we are, when we realize that our identity is beyond matter. Then, when we seek satisfaction beyond matter, we will have some hope of being content at heart.
“Atma, or self, is distinguished from matter and material elements,” Prabhupada writes. “It is spiritual in constitution, and thus it is never satisfied by any amount of material planning.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.1.11, Purport) Thus our deepest cravings cannot and will not be satisfied within this realm of gross matter. Scriptural words wisely remind us that we’re looking for satisfaction in the wrong place: “Living only for the satisfaction of the senses, a person lives in vain.” (Gita 3.16)
Yet the many varieties of enjoyment within this world repeatedly give us a false hope that if we simply change our material situation our stress and dissatisfaction will be turned into happiness and satisfaction. Even if we acquire some sort of material happiness, however, it will soon be disturbed by the inevitable flux caused by the relentless progress of time. Therefore, in no uncertain terms, we learn that “Without contentment one could not be happy even if he possessed the property of the entire world or the entire universe.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 8.19.21)
Srila Prabhupada’s definition of satisfaction includes an indication of how we can achieve it: “Tushti, satisfaction, means that one should not be eager to gather more and more material goods by unnecessary activity. One should be satisfied with whatever is obtained by the grace of the Supreme Lord; that is called satisfaction.” (Gita 10.4–5, Purport)
According to Srila Prabhupada and the scriptures, satisfaction comes by desiring and amassing, not more, but less, and thoughtful people come to a similar conclusion. In a December 15, 2017, New York Times article called “My Year of No Shopping,” author Ann Patchett writes,
Once I stopped looking for things to buy, I became tremendously grateful for the things I received. . . . It doesn’t take so long for a craving to subside, be it for Winstons or gin or cupcakes. Once I got the hang of giving shopping up, it wasn’t much of a trick. The trickier part was living with the startling abundance that had become glaringly obvious when I stopped trying to get more. Once I could see what I already had, and what actually mattered, I was left with a feeling that was somewhere between sickened and humbled. . . . There’s a reason that just about every religion regards material belongings as an impediment to peace.
Srila Prabhupada concurs: “People must be taught how to be satisfied with only what they need. In modern civilization there is no such education; everyone tries to possess more and more, and everyone is dissatisfied and unhappy.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 8.19.21, Purport) And: “Satisfaction of the mind can be obtained only by taking the mind away from thoughts of sense enjoyment. The more we think of sense enjoyment, the more the mind becomes dissatisfied. In the present age we unnecessarily engage the mind in so many different ways for sense gratification, and so there is no possibility of the mind’s becoming satisfied.” (Gita 17.16, Purport)
The core reason for our stress and dissatisfaction is that we’ve forgotten who we are. We’re thinking that we’re the body or mind, but that is false. The fact is, jivera ‘svarupa’ haya-krishnera ‘nitya-dasa’ (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 20.108): we’re eternal spiritual beings, atma. Our nature is to serve – the atma’s innate activity is service – but in the material sphere, instead of serving spirit we’re serving the dictates of desire, anger, lust, illusion, insanity, and envy. As we begin to grasp the dire situation we’re in, we can begin to do something about it. At that time, rather than trying to satisfy and serve the dictates of our lower nature we can try to satisfy and serve the dictates of our own self, the atma.
In Srila Prabhupada’s words, “The whole material world is full of hungry living beings. The hunger is not for good food, shelter, or sense gratification. The hunger is for the spiritual atmosphere.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.12.6, Purport)
Thus our heart’s dissatisfaction can cause us to reflect, and once we do we will see that restraining rather than indulging our senses brings us closer to our goal of a stress-free, satisfied existence. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, “A person who is not disturbed by the incessant flow of desires – that enter like rivers into the ocean, which is ever being filled but is always still – can alone achieve peace, and not the man who strives to satisfy such desires.” (Gita 2.70)
In this process of searching to end stress and become satisfied, however, there’s a serious pitfall, namely being satisfied with mere satisfaction. In another New York Times article, “How to Be Happy,” we’re told, “Happiness isn’t something that just happens to you. Everyone has the power to make small changes in our behavior, our surroundings and our relationships that can help set us on course for a happier life.” (November 15, 2017) The author, Tara Parker-Pope, goes on to explain what those small changes can be. Most of us (me included) can relate to them – “tame negative thoughts, live in a country that has social freedom, spend time in nature, establish relationships with happy people, do meaningful work, be kind.” It’s true: these things, combined or individually, will lead to increased satisfaction and reduced stress. But that state itself can be a trap: in that state we can become conditioned by a sense of happiness and knowledge, satisfied by our situation, work, or intellectual pursuits, and end our quest for satisfaction before we’ve come to its end – the spiritual platform.
In other words, we may adjust our lives in ways that increase our sense of satisfaction but, at some point, find that in the deepest recesses of our heart we’re still craving something more; our soul is still hankering, still seeking.
That material satisfaction can actually become an obstacle is confirmed by Queen Kunti. She prays, “My Lord, Your Lordship can easily be approached, but only by those who are materially exhausted.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.26) Material comforts can lull us into a sense of satisfaction that’s not complete. And rather that looking at that incompleteness, we avoid further investigation; we become complacent.
What’s the Source of Satisfaction?
Krishna says, “Everything comes from Me” (Gita 10.8), and “everything” includes satisfaction. God, Krishna, is self-satisfied because He is fully opulent and is always full in Himself; He does not need a pinch of our help for His satisfaction; rather He is the original source of our satisfaction (and the satisfaction of all living entities). We, as His parts, have the quality of satisfaction within us but in minute quantity. Whatever satisfaction we experience separate from Him will be incomplete and threatened by external circumstances.
Once we approach Krishna for satisfaction, however, we’ll find an unlimited supply, a veritable ocean. At that time we’ll have no more hankering, for we will be fully satisfied. Srila Prabhupada says, “You’ll be joyful. Your material moroseness will go at once. At once. Brahma-bhutah prasannatma na shocati. You’ll be free from all anxiety. . . . And there will be no demand for your sense satisfaction. You’ll feel yourself full. ‘Oh, I am full. I have nothing to demand.’ Such stage will come.” (Lecture on Bhagavad-gita 5.7–13, August 27, 1966, New York)
How Can I Get It?
Satisfaction is an austerity of the mind (Gita 17.16), and by satisfaction the mind is purified (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.5.4). So the beginning of our quest for satisfaction is to take up Ann Pachett’s process of not acquiring or striving for more but of voluntarily focusing on what we have rather than what we don’t. “One should be satisfied with whatever he achieves by his previous destiny, for discontent can never bring happiness.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 8.19.24)
From this point of detachment we come to knowledge: there is no lack of anything in this world, for everything is already supplied by Krishna; there is no scarcity. The only thing that’s lacking is our awareness of Krishna. By becoming conscious of Krishna and conscientiously applying our energy to please Him with whatever facilities we have, we perform bhakti-yoga, uniting with God by serving Him with devotion. When we work in this way, to satisfy the Lord, we gradually become free of affection for matter.
Srila Prabhupada writes,
The Krishna conscious person is concerned only with the satisfaction of Krishna, and nothing else. Therefore he is transcendental to all attachment and detachment. If Krishna wants, the devotee can do anything which is ordinarily undesirable; and if Krishna does not want, he shall not do that which he would have ordinarily done for his own satisfaction. Therefore, to act or not to act is within his control because he acts only under the direction of Krishna. This consciousness is the causeless mercy of the Lord, which the devotee can achieve in spite of his being attached to the sensual platform. (Gita 2.64, Purport)
If we live in this way, only for the satisfaction of Krishna, our thoughts will be positive and what work we do or where we live will be less important, for our only business will be to satisfy Krishna. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The perfection of religion is to attain complete satisfaction of the spirit soul, and this is accomplished by rendering devotional service to the Lord, who is beyond the perception of the material senses.” (Mukunda-mala-stotra 5, Purport)
Again in Srila Prabhupada’s words: “The highly developed soul always remains satisfied in himself by realizing himself as the eternal servitor of the Supreme Lord. Such a transcendentally situated person has no sense desires resulting from petty materialism; rather, he remains always happy in his natural position of eternally serving the Supreme Lord.” (Gita 2.55, Purport)
Each of us is part of the Supreme Person, Krishna. As a part of the body does not act for self-satisfaction but for the satisfaction of the whole body, so we, the atma, are meant to work for the satisfaction of the supreme whole, Krishna. This sort of work alleviates stress and bring us great satisfaction.
“One’s only concern should be to satisfy the Lord by one’s activities,” Srila Prabhupada writes. “If the Lord is satisfied by an action, whatever it may be, then it is successful. Otherwise, it is simply a waste of time. That is the standard of all sacrifice, penance, austerity, mystic trance and other good and pious work.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.9.41, Purport)
The satisfaction we feel by acting in this way is like the feeling we have when we finally get a healthy meal after not eating for a long time. As we eat, we feel our hunger dissipate and our body becoming satisfied and strong. Similarly, by serving Krishna with devotion, we feel transcendentally satisfied and detached from material objectives. As Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.2.42) states, “Devotion, direct experience of the Supreme Lord, and detachment from other things – these three occur simultaneously for one who has taken shelter of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in the same way that pleasure, nourishment and relief from hunger come simultaneously and increasingly, with each bite, for a person engaged in eating.”
So, beyond the satisfaction derived from detachment from our material situation is the far greater satisfaction of devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, for devotional service is the unalloyed activity of the soul.
When we, the soul, are in contact with matter, our activities are adulterated and we experience these adulterated activities as stress and dissatisfaction. We go beyond this stage by attaining neutrality in the material world. (Apropos of Ann Pachett’s Times article, we “stop shopping.”) And passing this stage of equanimity, we become fixed in the transcendental loving service of the Lord. Sincere devotional service eliminates stress and dissatisfaction and allows us to further progress to the position of always seeing Krishna eye to eye by dint of pure affection for Him. At that point, by Krishna’s grace, we are free of material desire. Then we are always satisfied.
“A Krishna Conscious person is always satisfied whether in Vaikuntha or in hell,” Srila Prabhupada wrote. “His satisfaction is not the particular place but his sincere service attitude towards Krishna.” (Letter, November 13, 1967)
Furthermore, Srila Prabhupada writes, “Since a devotee wants to satisfy the desires of the Lord, he can, Lord willing, accept all kinds of opulence for the service of the Lord, and if the Lord is not willing, he should not accept a farthing.” (Gita 1.32-35, Purport) Devotional service to Krishna is not always easy, but difficulties do not deter a devotee. “One who works for the satisfaction of the Lord only,” Prabhupada writes, “however difficult such work may be, . . . finds himself always in transcendental bliss.” (Gita 2.39, Purport)
One exalted devotee expresses it this way:
My Lord, those who keep themselves independent of Your service are helpless. They work on their own account and thus receive no support from superior authority. Therefore I long for the time when I shall engage fully in Your transcendental loving service without any desire for material satisfaction and without hovering on the mental plane. Only when I engage in such unalloyed devotional service will I enjoy actual spiritual life. (Sri Yamunacharya, Stotra-ratna 43)
How Good Does It Get?
When our devotional service is unmotivated and uninterrupted, we feel completely satisfied.
In Srila Prabhupada’s words:
Remaining fixed in devotional service gives one the utmost in self-satisfaction. Actually self-satisfaction can be achieved only by pure devotees, who have no desire other than to serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Since the Supreme Personality of Godhead has nothing to desire, He is fully satisfied with Himself. Similarly, a devotee who has no desire other than to serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead is as self-satisfied as the Supreme Lord. Everyone is hankering after peace of mind and self-satisfaction, but these can only be achieved by becoming a pure devotee of the Lord.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.22.49, Purport)
Devotees become fully peaceful and satisfied because of their association with the complete whole, Krishna, and Krishna grants them genuine transcendental understanding. He says, “To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” (Gita 10.10)
But it gets better. Srila Prabhupada writes in Renunciation Through Wisdom (Chapter 2),
The devotees are the Lord’s relatives and family members. Just as ordinary people feel joy and satisfaction when they look after the needs and comforts of their family, the Lord also feels pleasure when he tends to the well-being of His devotees. Thus the Supreme Lord is known as Bhakta-vatsala, ‘the maintainer of the devotees.’ . . . When the devotee is devoid of all material desires, the Supreme Lord feels great satisfaction in fulfilling all his needs.
A devotee’s satisfaction goes beyond detachment from matter, beyond freedom from stress, and even beyond satisfaction and receiving knowledge and maintenance from the Lord. In fact, the Lord gives His devotees the ability to satisfy Him through their love. Lord Brahma tells Lord Krishna, “How greatly fortunate are the cows and ladies of Vrindavana, the nectar of whose breast-milk You have happily drunk to Your full satisfaction, taking the form of their calves and children! All the Vedic sacrifices performed from time immemorial up to the present day have not given You as much satisfaction.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.14.31)
Moreover, the Lord is so pleased with His unalloyed devotees that He wants to satisfy them. Therefore “He manifests His innumerable transcendental forms for the satisfaction of His devotees.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.20.25) In His world, the spiritual world, Krishna reciprocates the affection of His devoted servants by becoming their friend, son, or lover. And in the material world Krishna reciprocates from within the hearts of His devotees by revealing Himself as ever-increasingly new. Inspired by Him, devotees experience increased transcendental bliss in the execution of their devotional service.
Krishna says, “The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are fully devoted to My service, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about Me.” (Gita 10.9)
The real aim of life is complete satisfaction. And that complete satisfaction can be achieved only by devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. By engaging in His service with devotion, we’re freed from all anxieties and we’re happy, for we see God’s design behind everything and we know He is our most dear friend.
Prabhupada writes, “I see all round hopes; there is nothing to be disappointed in my service to Krishna. Let us go on with our work for Krishna for His satisfaction and for the benefit of the whole world.” (Letter, December 31, 1967)