The most condensed and traditional source for understanding samvega and pasada can be found in the (simplified, mythical?) story of the Buddha’s movement from privileged clansman to wandering ascetic. Wandering out of his protected surroundings, he encountered first someone who was aged, then an ill person, then a corpse. “Will I also age?” Yes. “Will I also fall ill?” Yes. “Will I also die?” Yes. All these things are inevitable. As these truths touched him deeply, he became disenchanted, revolted, by the blindness with which he had been living his life.
The not-yet-Buddha began to burn with this revulsion. “Is there nothing else, no escape? How futile and wasteful are these distractions and pleasures? I must find a better way.” This urgency is samvega. Life is short. The usual pass times are futile. Now is the time to apply oneself. Now.
But then Gotauma saw a renunciate, a wandering ascetic. There arose in him a certainty that this was the way to go. Renunciation, search, reflection, calm, simplicity: these were qualities he could trust. This confidence was cooling; it offered assuredness and the possibility of acting wisely on the energy provided by the samvega. In a way, this was the ingredient necessary to make Gotauma’s passion workable. With this powerful combination of urgency and cooling confidence, the Buddha-to-be left his settled life and all of its safety and embarked upon the intensive and sincere investigation that, to this day, continues to yield the fruits of insight for so many.
How do this apply to you and me, here and now?
The first thing to get straight is that samvega refers to an urgency towards awakening. It does not refer to worldly urgency, which rests in engagement with the constructed. Likewise, samvega is not confidence associated with worldly skill, gain, or circumstances. It is confidence in the path, and in the collected quality of mind that comes with knowing where one is headed. Even so, there can be a connection between worldly and spiritual urgency and confidence. In fact, samvega and pasada can help bring about alignment between our everyday work and affairs and our path of awakening.
If our work seems trivial, we need to recollect the preciousness of this life. Is this actually trivial? If so, why am I doing it? Samvega would say, “Drop it!” Or is it just one of the small but necessary building blocks of our high intentions to be of service, to work with mindfulness and care? Samvega would say, “Give your self fully to every little bit.” In both cases, pasada would say, “Find the ease and balance within things just as they are.”
Sometimes, life is taken up with sense pleasures, being lost in anger and regret. In such moments samvega is recognizing how this precious life is being consumed without benefit to self or others. So there is urgency to drop the wasteful and unwholesome. This leads to a re-focus on the path.
If one must do things that tend to dull the mind, for example for purposes of earning a living, then the urgency is to bring the path into that: zeal for mindfulness, to guard tranquility, engage in inquiry, practice kindness and compassion, and so on.
If the activities are themselves wholesome and aimed in alignment with the path, then one may decide to maintain those activities whether they sustain mindful calm or not. But the samvega is to sustain the essence of the path itself directly in one’s mental culture. One reinvigorates the sati and samadhi while doing this thing. The thing may feel urgent, but the samvega as spiritual urgency is zeal to maintain dispassion and energy while mindfully and authentically participating in the activity. But the path, alone and with others, is primary.
When the urgency of the task is towards wakefulness, towards compassionate action, and the urgency of the path is also in this direction, the two can come into alignment. Task and path meet.Then, no matter what the actual mechanics of the task, there is no doubt that the path unfolds within it.
Samvega can be transmitted to others, can circulate in a group. So can the pasada. The danger exists that urgency about the task will be confused with urgency about the path. Since the tasks are never done, since human affairs will always be complex and often difficult, the urgency can easily lead to frustration, identification, and eventually burnout. There are two related antidotes. The first is the patience that comes with pasada. With confidence that the task is aligned with Dhamma, there will be confidence that it will unfold in its own time and in its own way. And if it does not unfold as we would like, this is accepted. Patience is cooling.
The second antidote is remembering that the samvega to be given primacy is urgency for awakening, not for the task. This should help cut identification and grasping and the stress that comes with it. The pasada also has the path as its primary aspect, so calling to mind one’s confidence in the dhamma, in practice, in spiritual community, will help to release the grip of wanting, fear, and tension. Again, whatever the task, whatever the interpersonal difficulty, the samvega can inspire, the pasada can cool.
Working together in community, we can remind each other of both the samvega and the pasada. One of us forgets, the other might remember. Then we change roles because we’re all human and we’re all in this together. The recirculating of task-focused samvega usually brings tension, but the redirecting to path-samvega and maturing with path-pasada heals, cools, and transforms. Now, the recirculating gives strength. Wholesome urgency is a remembering, and together, people remind each other: let’s not waste any time because this life is too precious. Wholesome cooling and confidence, as part of an interpersonal path, is a mutual down regulating and sustenance of faith in the path.
But this is not a given. We need to remember it, foster it, give it attention. It is a shared intention.