Samvega

By Jessica

I’m currently reading The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living by Stephen Cope. I’m only a chapter or so into it but so far so good. Cope basically explains Patanjoli’s sutras through the experiences of his friends and family. It’s a solid dose of yoga philosophy told through relatable stories.

I made it as far as the first chapter when a concept hit home with me. This was the week before the election and it was something I sensed that I could reach out and touch in everyone around me. The concept was samvega. A Sanskrit term that appears in Buddhist texts and in the Yoga Sutras. I’d like to be clear that the two have somewhat different definitions of the word. In this case Cope was referring to the Buddhist usage of the word.

Gautama Buddha experienced samvega when he encountered the four sights. An old man, a sick man, a corpse and an ascetic. This experience led to his understanding of the noble truth of suffering and the impermanence and ultimate dissatisfaction with a conditioned existence.

The Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikku describes samvega as a feeling that “covers a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it's normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle”. Some of the results of samvega are a lack of pleasure from formerly pleasurable sources, an increased need for truth and authenticity, increased introversion and reliance primarily on one’s own gut instincts, an increased need to discover and realize one’s own talents, a generally psychological and spiritual sense of disorganization and a need to stop business as usual and get to finding the path that will allow a move out of samvega.

In general, samvega can lead to one of two places: a place of bitterness, cynicism, and depression or it can lead one to seek the Dharma. Although Dharma has many interpretations, I find it easiest to think of Dharma as cosmic law. Buddhist teachings encourage embracing and even celebrating feelings of samvega. If we embrace these feelings we can gain a clear sense of where we need to go or what we need to do to find out way out of it.

Samvega can show you the path out of suffering. Once you have found the path either on your own or through the Dharma, you will experience pasada. Pasada is the joy that arises in the heart when the path out of suffering and stress can be seen. Buddhakaruna said that sadly, most people drown the emotion of samvega when it arises in their heart. Some drown it with distraction. Some drown it with alcohol and end up drowning themselves. One of the greatest and most destructive delusions is that suffering can be dealt with by numbness. Understanding the normalcy of samvega gives it a constructive place in our lives and we no longer need to numb this wise emotion.