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spiritual essayEssay 4/2012

What is the right thing to do?


Everyone knows this question – asking themselves occasionally, often or constantly: ‚What is the right thing to do?'. Each time when a decision has to be made is an opportunity for this question to surface.

Everyday decisions:
Eat now or later
Take line 17 or line 19
Give something to that beggar or not
Wear the red t-shirt or the white one
Call or not

Bigger decisions:
Prevent old-age poverty
Give notice
File for divorce
Swap car for train
Exhibit one's own pictures
Give up the present circle of friends
Buy a house

You can put up your own list of subjects here that trigger the question, "What is the right thing to do?"

This question actually means: "What steps lead me to my goal?" Hidden behind the question is always the desire to achieve a certain goal.

Is this goal always the same? No: personal goals of people differ. I want to save time - which line helps me to achieve that goal best? I want to look good - which t-shirt suits me better? I do not want to be poor in old age, I want to have friends with whom I can genuinely relate, a job that fulfils me, to stay single than be in a dead marriage, etc. All these are different goals. Each of them requires a different response.

In Advaita Vedanta one distinguishes at the practical level four categories of human goals. The first three are known to everyone: They concern either security or well-being or being an ethical person. The goal behind almost all decisions listed above is well-being, behind some it is security and with two, possibly, being a good person (giving to the beggar and svapping car for train). Examining one's own list, one will find more or less the same items.

And the fourth goal? The fourth goal is being internally free of these first three goals. Very few people have this goal because who even thinks of it being worthwhile to be free from these three goals? How should that help me?!

Well, it would save oneself quite a number of worries if one need not bother about the goal of security, nor the goal of well-being, nor even about the goal of leading an ethically flawless life. As this makes sense to most people, immediately the next objection will come up: 'This cannot work! Who then is going to look after my security, my well-being and will take care that I act responsibly and in an upright manner?'

As mentioned it is about the internal freedom from the first three goals – meaning it is about dis-identification. You need not be identified in order for something to work. Whoever earns a living, is able to do this with or without identification. In the former case, however, he will be more tense, more frightened and more nervous. Whoever takes care of his well-being, also can do this with or without identification – with the same result. And even the one who wants to be a good person and thus wants to do the right thing, can be identified with it or not. And he too will be better off if he is not identified with his goal.

Why? Because I am free from dependence for my inner peace on the first three goals which have one thing in common: they can only be achieved for a limited period of time. This means that neither security, nor well-being, nor ethical flawlessness are stable states. Rather they are subject to constant change. And this of course brings about irritation, worry, fear, annoyance, feelings of insecurity. Identification with a goal means the dependence on its attainment. More: the dependence on its preservation. As with regard to these three unsteady goals the latter is impossible: stress is the logical consequence.

Whoever understands that gaining freedom from dependence on the first three goals is worth it, will of course ask how this freedom can be gained.

First of all it is a matter of pausing here and becoming aware of the magnitude of one's own identification with them and the frustration that goes along with the unceasing, vain efforts to be permanently good, permanently happy and permanently safe. We need to recognize how completely inconceivable not having to go on chasing after these goals seems to be. And most importantly, we need to feel the longing to be free from this identification – even if one does not know yet how to achieve this freedom.

This is spiritual longing, this is the longing for the truth. Only feeling it, one has a chance of freedom of these first three goals at all. Therefore it is so important to give space to this longing, not to pass over it, just because longing is somewhat painful. It has to be painful otherwise it does not serve its purpose. Why is it painful? Because it points to a lack because something is still missing – no matter how much security, well-being and ethical righteousness one has already attained; no matter how often one has managed to do the right thing.

The fourth goal is called moksha. Moksha is another word for enlightenment. The fourth goal is enlightenment.

Enlightenment is what is missing, and not more security, more well-being, more righteousness. If I seek salvation from attaining these three goals, disappointment is preprogrammed – simply because they are not there to deliver release. Release from my problems is attained when I stop seeking it where it is not to be found – in the first three goals - and start to seek it where it can be found – in the fourth goal.

Why does the fourth goal mean release? Because only when I have attained moksha I cease to identify with something that I am not and recognize what I am: absolute security, absolute well-being, absolute truthfulness – nothing is missing and nothing would need to be completed by the attainment of something else.

Compared with the first three goals moksha has two decisive advantages. First of all moksha is completely stable - once it is reached, it does not drop away again. Secondly – and I have talked about this in many of these essays – moksha neither has to be produced, nor tacked down somewhere else. Advaita Vedanta says having this goal in mind means being in search of oneself. That means in order to achieve this goal one need not provide either for more security, or for more pleasant experiences in one's life. In fact even better ethical conduct is not enough. One just has to discover what one is already anyway. (Not that this is as easy as it sounds but isn't it good news to know that there is no need to go elsewhere?!)

Of course it helps if one has one's livelihood, can lead a fairly comfortable life and is not constantly at odds with one's own conscience but compared with the goal of moksha all the other goals will gradually lessen their burden. That is, identification with them will slowly decrease.

In the end it is not a matter of doing the right thing but of asking the right question – Who am I in truth? - plus taking care to qualify oneself to answer it. All essays on this site only aim at this: to light up this question and to give suggestions as to how one can approach answering it. The final identification with something that I am not dissolves with the answer, and with this dissolution every possibility of identification with the one who decides, acts and sets one's sight on passing results. This is moksha, freedom.


Contact me - Comments, suggestions or questions arising from the essays are most welcome; I will endeavor to take them up in future essays. Want to add your name to the mailing list?

Contact me - Comments, suggestions or questions arising from the essays are most welcome; I will endeavor to take them up in future essays. Want to add your name to the mailing list?