Exploration & Commitment
1. What is spirituality?
Spirituality is a complete science that entails a comprehensive study of the intrinsic nature of the soul and its relationship both to the external world and to Universal Consciousness. When this science is not coupled with contemplative or meditative techniques for attaining the actual experience of higher reality, it is philosophy or metaphysics. When it is based on faith alone and is accompanied by superstition, dogma, customs, and cultural activities, it is religion. When it is accompanied by practices, which, although difficult to grasp intellectually, have the power to unveil subtle and often indescribable realms of inner experience, it is mysticism. Only when this science rests firmly on a philosophy of life, incorporates ethical and moral values that are indispensable to health and well-being, and at the same time provides a workable system of self-training leading to self-transformation, can it correctly be called spirituality.
Practically speaking, spirituality has two integral parts: (1) theories and practices for removing obstacles to the inward journey, and (2) theories and practices that elucidate the inner core of reality and lead an aspirant there, step by step. The goal of spirituality is direct realization of the true Self and its relationship with the Universal Self. The body and mind are the most efficient tools for achieving that goal. Keeping the body and mind in good health, creating a balance between the two, and finally, directing all one’s resources toward spiritual unfoldment, are the steps needed in spiritual practices.
A Spiritual practice that fails to eliminate the conditions of illness, procrastination, doubt, laziness, hopelessness, indulgence in sense pleasures, confusion, instability, and inability to concentrate is like a body without breath; such a practice is lifeless. Involving yourself in spiritual practices, even those that are valid and potent, while disregarding the process of purification is like drinking pure water from a grimy cup.
The first step in spiritual practice is to address the health of the body. A healthy mind can dwell only in a healthy body. Because a confused mind is not fit for any kind of practice, the next step is to work with the mind. Systematically working with the body, breath, and mind introduces you to various levels of yourself and helps you overcome the obstacles to attaining direct, experiential knowledge of Truth. When these obstacles have been overcome, you will have more time and energy for your actual practice, which involves gaining access to the vast potentials that lie dormant within your body and mind.
Thus, a holistic approach to spirituality involves working with your body by practicing asana, pranayama, and mudras-the subtle yogic techniques for unlocking pranic forces and rechanneling them toward the center of your being. You unfold the power of the mind by practicing the techniques of concentration and meditation, which enable you to collect the forces of the mind and direct them toward the center of consciousness, known as Atman, or the Soul. Only a properly trained and one-pointed mind can go beyond the realm of the ordinary mind. Attaining a direct experience of the Soul is ultimately what is meant by “spiritual enlightenment,” but those primary and secondary practices that help you reach this sublime goal are also an intrinsic part of spirituality.
2. When should I seek spiritual guidance?
The need for guidance usually arises at two different points in life. The first is when you feel a need to take care of your spiritual self but don’t know how. You want to start, but don’t know where to begin. The second point at which spiritual guidance is often needed is when you have already started your journey, but find yourself lost. The practices, which used to make sense no longer, seem meaningful. You may have reached a plateau and don’t know what is next or you might be facing a wall and don’t know how to scale it. That is the time to seek guidance.
A map is useless unless you know how to use it to reach your destination. A true guide will not only give you the map, he or she will also help you locate your position on it and gather the resources you need to follow it. When you are ill, you seek the advice of a doctor. If the treatment isn’t helping, you discuss your symptoms with your doctor who will then make a more precise diagnosis. Similarly, when you feel the pressing need for spiritual care, you seek the guidance of a teacher. While undertaking the spiritual discipline he or she recommends, if you feel lost or stuck, discuss this with your teacher-he or she will help you restructure your practice and will give you precise instructions on how to free yourself from the obstacles you are facing.
The External Teacher & the Teacher Within
3. Yoga is said to be systematic path leading to enlightenment and self-realization, and it is said that “Yoga” means union between the individual Self and Universal Consciousness, and that the goal of this path is to attain perfect control over the modifications of the mind. Yet most yoga centers and teachers offer instruction only in yoga postures and breathing exercises, with an occasional nod to psychology. Most do not teach meditation, and the few that do confine themselves to basic techniques. Why?
The goal of Yoga is gaining control over the modifications of the mind and, finally, attaining the direct experience of one’s inner Self. More than 2,000 years ago, when the sage Patanjali codified the system of yoga, he did not put much emphasis on physical exercises and included only advanced pranayama (breathing practices) in his system. In those days, either hatha yoga and pranayama practices were so common that they didn’t need to be mentioned, or people lived such balanced, harmonious lives and were in such good health that they did not need to make the physical postures and the breathing exercises an integral part of their spiritual practice.
Today, however, we seem to be stuck at the level of body consciousness. More than half of our time and energy is spent in dealing with mental issues, and what remains goes to addressing physical complaints and survival issues. This leaves little time for purely spiritual pursuits and for answering the essential questions: What is our origin? What is the purpose of life? Is there any higher reality than the one we perceive? What is the relationship between our individual and Absolute Consciousness? Yoga classes reflect this concern with body consciousness.
A second reason yoga teaching lacks depth is that many of today’s yoga centers are run by teachers whose knowledge of yoga is confined to the physical postures (asanas) and the simple breathing practices, so this is what they teach. This is also the area of yoga that interests the greatest number of students. After practicing hatha yoga for several years and studying yoga texts, some students begin to yearn for deeper dimensions of yogic wisdom. They naturally develop a commitment to the spiritual dimension of yoga. But even these inspired students face the same problem as everyone else their physical energy is depleted and their minds are scattered. Consequently, their physical energy is depleted and their minds are scattered. Consequently, they cannot afford to exclude asana and breathing exercises from their spiritual discipline.
4. How do I know which of the many paths of yoga is best for me?
Six months after you start practicing systematically, observe the degree to which you have overcome the problems and concerns you had at the beginning. Is your mind less scattered? Is your body stronger and more flexible? Do you have more energy? If you have been working systematically, you will find that your capacity has expanded. Make good use of that expanded capacity by seeking more advanced instrument.
If you have become enchanted with the sublime philosophy and meta-physics of yoga, and if you have come to find the charms and temptations of the world less alluring, then look for a master who can initiate you into mantra yoga He or she may instruct you to undergo a serious and systematic practice of mantra meditation, which in the scriptures is known as purascharana, “the first step toward the Divine experience.”
If you have studied the authentic texts and are amazed by the powers and potentials that lie dormant within the human body, and if you are sure that your body is healthy and your mind sound, find a teacher who can instruct you in the path of kundalini yoga. But if you choose this path, remember that the authenticity of the teachings is purely experiential and is self-evident. Any experience that doesn’t bring out previously unknown dimensions of knowledge and joy is not a spiritual experience. A spiritual experience is never bizarre or painful, nor will it harm your health. Kundalini shakti (the dormant force within) and problems simply do not go together. My personal warning: if any experience of so-called-kundalini awakening causes a problem, then it is not a kundalini experience.
If, instead of studying books, you have studied yourself - your body, breath, mind, and your worldly circumstances - and realized that, to some degree, you are interested in mantra, kundalini shakti, and the immense power of the mind then it’s better to follow the path of raja yoga. On this path, you will work with yourself simultaneously on every level of your personality in a gentle and progressive manner. An experienced teacher of raja yoga instantly knows which area of your life needs immediate attention - body, breath, mind, or lifestyle. He or she will help you focus on that particular area in such a way that the other areas of life are also addressed in a proportionate manner.
On the path of raja yoga, you will develop healthy and harmonious relationship with others by practicing the five yamas: ahimsa (non-harmfulness), satya (non-lying), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (waling in God), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). As a means of disciplining yourself, you will practice the five niyamas: saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerities), svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to God). For your body, you will practice asanas; for your breath, pranayama. To gain control over your senses, you will practice pratyahara, and for your mind, you will practice dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (spiritual absorption). You can either climb these eight rungs of yoga step by step, or you can embrace them simultaneously, depending on your needs, circumstances, problems, and capacities.
Regardless of what specific path you follow, you must organize your worldly life and your spiritual life so that one is not a source of disturbance to the other. This can be done by incorporating the basic principles of karma, bhakti, and jnana into your specific practice. Let’s take a brief look at each one.
According to the school of karma yoga, a human being cannot live without performing actions. Attachment to the fruit of these actions is a source of bondage. When an action is performed selflessly, lovingly, and skillfully, then neither that action nor its fruits has any power to bind.
Bhakti means love and devotion. Without it, spiritual practice becomes dry and boring. Doubts seep in and you begin to wonder, “What’s the point of doing all these practices?” Cultivating love for your practice will help you become devoted to it.
Jnana means knowledge. In this particular context, knowledge means understanding that nothing in this world really belongs to you. We can enjoy the objects of the world, but have no right to own them mentally or become attached to them. Placing little value on the objects of the world and constantly remaining aware of the Truth within will strengthen your understanding of the world and enable you to stay on the path.
5. Can a person attain enlightenment without the help of a teacher? If so, does it take longer?
Anything, including enlightenment, can be obtained without anyone’s help. But help really helps! In any field of knowledge, mentors are needed to help the novice grow systematically and become more focused. a mentor (or teacher) is someone who has assimilated the experiences of previous seekers and explorers and has made good use of these explorers and has made good use of these experiences.
A proven system of education is of the utmost importance, whether it aims to give training in the external or internal world. Such a system develops after a series of experiments has established the validity of a method of teaching and after this method has been applied repeatedly and been found to yield similar results, time after time. It is time-consuming to chart your own path when a map of the area is available; setting out on an uncharted path is often fruitless and can even be perilous. Those walking such a path are beset with doubts and uncertainty. Many seekers who begin on their own and get no help from a teacher search here and there, trying different methods. Often, by the time they stumble on a system of practice that works for them, their lives are almost over, and no time is left for the practice itself.
An authentic teacher has received clear instructions from his or her own mentor, has traveled the path, and has integrated the wisdom gleaned along the way. Such a person is qualified to help us find and follow the most appropriate path.
6. How can I find a teacher?
You will find whatever you look for. The Bible says, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find’ knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (Matthew VII: 7) The tricky part is that the Bible never tells you how many times to knock, or even where to find the door!
Our instinct, intuition, destiny, karma (or whatever word you want to use), guides us toward the door. That is the law. In the natural course of events, we begin wondering: What is the purpose of life? Where have I come from? Where am I going? As these questions become stronger and more persistent. Worldly charms begin to lose their luster, and we become seekers. We find the time and energy to search for the door-a spiritual teacher, an organization, a center, or an ashram.
You won’t necessarily find the right place or the right person in your first attempt. Even if you are fortunate enough to meet the right teacher immediately, he or she may not give you what you expected. The teacher is not bound to fulfill your expectations. In fact, a teacher who has undergone training with a competent master knows the importance of teaching only what is best for you, regardless of what you expect. Even though your immediate expectations may not be met, your first encounter with your teacher makes an enormous impression on your mind and heart. Intellectually you may think that you didn’t get anything, but deep down you feel blessed by his or her company. This kindles a desire to learn something from that person.
The first meeting between teacher and student is crucial. In the first instant, you recognize each other, not with your eyes or though a formal introduction, but with your hearts. Two hearts meet and know each other at the level of feeling. Catch hold of that moment of recognition and cherish it so that, later on, your undisciplined and argumentative mind doesn’t confuse you.
7. What are the obstacles to establishing a master-disciple relationship? How can a student overcome them?
Fear and doubt are the greatest obstacles. Study yourself carefully, and find out what you are afraid of losing in that relationship. What is the exact nature of your fear? What makes you feel threatened and prevents you from coming close to your teacher and receiving guidance without hindrance?
If you analyze yourself, you will find that the major obstacle is ego Ego has a hard time accepting anyone’s supremacy. Tell your ego that it’s not a matter of accepting someone as superior to yourself; it’s simply a matter of allowing someone who is selfless to guide you on the path.
The second problem is doubt. In the past, you may have been deceived and misguided by others. If that’s the case, tell yourself that you will not allow one failure to halt your progress on that path, and that you will not permit even a hundred failures to stop you. Overcome you skepticism. Your pervious negative experiences were at least partially due to your blind faith, your unclear perception, and most importantly, your lack of a definite goal. Remove these conditions, search for a teacher, and you will find one. And once you have met your teacher, let that relationship take its natural course; follow it and meet your responsibilities in a loving, selfless, and relaxed manner.
8. Isn’t another pitfall the tendency to use a teacher as a crutch?
While skepticism and fear of being absorbed into a group can be obstacles to spiritual unfoldment, the opposite tendency is equally a barrier - that is using a teacher as a crutch. This obstacle is subtler than the other two. Most people living in the world are accustomed to leaning on others. This tendency lingers in the mind even when one begins the spiritual search. Meditation is the path of freedom, the path on which a student attains freedom from all external crutches. A spiritual teacher should never be taken as a replacement for a counselor, therapist, or priest.
On the path of meditation, you are responsible for meditating. A teacher can guide you but cannot meditate for you. Beware of teachers who promise they will take care of your entire spiritual needs, whether you practice or nor. Students who are looking for such panaceas are the ones who will fall into the hands of false teachers.
Taming the Mind & the Senses
9. What should we do to understand life better and live happily?
You may try hundreds of things, but nothing will work unless you have control over your mind, It is the mind that creates a mess outside and inside, and it is the mind that finds way to clean up the mess. All problems are created and solved by the mind, but surprisingly, the mind is not known to itself.
Mind is the greatest of all mysteries. It stands between an individual and the higher truth and is the cause of both bondage and liberation. Properly trained, the mind can help you attain enlightenment, but a misguided mind can leave you stranded on the shoals of confusion and bondage. Peace is created by the mind. First, make the decision to be content in any circumstance. From that womb of contentment, peace is born. It is foolish to expect to achieve peace by retiring into the deep forest or departing for a distant galaxy. Ultimately, we must all find peace within our own minds.
10. Why does the mind prefer to run in the external world rather than turning inward to find peace?
The mind has bound itself tightly to the senses. Driven by sense cravings, the mind runs to the external world. As long as you do not known how to withdraw the senses from the external world, you have almost no choice but to let your mind remain a victim of sensory pleasure.
The objects of the senses, as well as the pleasure derived from them, are momentary. After experiencing a sensory pleasure, the mind realizes the emptiness of the experience. But it is always seeking satisfaction and, not knowing where else to find it, turns again to the external world. Thus, dissatisfaction becomes a way of life. Dissatisfaction leads to frustration. Peace vanishes, and the inner world becomes chaotic. Inner discontent, frustration, and restlessness then manifest in a person’s external life, and both internal and external worlds are full of misery.
11. How do we stop the mind from constantly turning to the external world?
Vairagya (non-attachment) is the only way. You will cultivate an attitude of non-attachment when you come to realize that all the objects of the world are transitory. The value of worldly objects is simply a creation of the mind. You arrived in this world with nothing and you will depart with nothing. When you realize this, you will not be attached to the objects of the world.
12. I understand that worldly objects have no real value I also know the value of practicing vairagya, but somehow I fail to maintain this knowledge, especially when it comes to interacting with the world. Why?
The mind is fully convinced that this world and its objects are real; this is called maya. Maya is a strong belief in the existence of that which does not exist. The following story illustrates this point:
Once a washer man asked his son to go to the barn and get his donkey. But when the son tried to fetch it, the donkey wouldn’t budge. The boy went to his father and told him the donkey wouldn’t have.
“Is the donkey tied up? The washer man asked.
“No. That’s what I don’t understand,” the son replied.
“Well then, slap him on the rump to get him moving!” the father replied in exasperation.
The son tried this but the donkey still wouldn’t move. He went back to his father and said, “Father, he must be sick. Please come and see for yourself.”
This time, father and son went together to fetch the donkey. The father tried to get the donkey to move, but to no avail. Then suddenly, he understood the problem. The donkey’s rope was attached to his halter but not attached to the post. The washer man wound the rope around the post, then unwound it and began walking out of the barn. The donkey, realizing he was united, followed him.
People whose minds are fully convinced of the reality of worldly objects and the bondage they create are like this donkey. This world is not capable of binding either the mind or soul; the mind is in bondage simply because it believed that it is in bondage.
13. How can the mind overcome the illusion that it is in bondage?
First, it must overcome the craving for worldly objects with the help of constant contemplation on the illusory nature of worldly pleasure. Second the mind must recognize its true nature and learn to maintain that awareness constantly. Forgetfulness of the true nature of the Self is what makes a human being subject to timidity, weakness, fear, and insecurity. It is this forgetfulness that causes us to keep searching for a heaven in the external world. Once you realize your inner Self, you become free from the charms of the world, as well as the fear of death. In this context, ponder this ancient tale:
Once there was a lion club who was separated from the pride at birth, before his eyes had opened. He never saw his real mother. He was helpless, but after a few days a flock of sheep happened by. He joined the flock and was raised with the lambs. As a result he identified himself with the sleep and learned to behave like them. He learned to follow others blindly, to be afraid of dogs, and to submit when whipped by the shepherd. He grew to adulthood, but his identification with the sheep around him was so complete that he never noticed him size or his sharp, powerful claws. He never discovered how fast he could run, how high he could jump, and how loud he could roar.
One day another lion crept up on the flock and let out a tremendous roar. The flock scattered. The young lion, who was as frightened as the other sheep, ran away too. He passed a pond in full flight and saw his reflection for the first time. To his astonishment, his reflection resembled the lion he was fleeing. Here was a puzzle: why didn’t he look like the other sheep? As he examined this reflection, his disappointment at not seeing the reflection of a sheep quickly turned into curiosity. As an experiment he tried roaring like the lion he had just heard and found that he could! This filled his mind with delight. He jumped and roared and relished the realization that he was truly a lion. He never returned to the flock, but joined the pride and lived as the king of the forest.
Like that lion cub, we create a self-image and based on that, we create a reality. If this identification is false, we become victims of falsehood. If the identifications are correct, then we are fortunate to live in the light of Truth.
14. I want to practice non-attachment, but I am distracted by the world’s pleasure. What can I do?
Learn to withdraw your senses and mind systematically before practicing non-attachment or committing yourself to an intense meditative practice. This process is called pratyahara (sense withdrawal). Through a systematic practice of pratyahara you can tame your senses and mind and bring them under your conscious control.
Practicing pratyahara requires a basic understanding of the nature of the external world so that while disciplining yourself, you don’t feel that you are being deprived of sensory pleasure. The practice itself should be a source of joy rather than a dry discipline. You must realize that people who search for joy in the external world are always disappointed. Desires and cravings begin in the mind and motivate the senses to seek pleasure in the external world. That is why trying to control the senses without placing your discipline in context will not be effective - you must first have understanding.
15. What is a systematic practice for taming the senses and the mind and turning them inward?
The first step is to convince the mind and senses that it is necessary to withdraw. If you are attentive, you will discover that the mind and senses busy themselves in the external world - or resort to sleep - in order to escape from reality, which is painful. This external search for peace is exhausting; sooner or later, the mind stops to rest. Rest feels good. If the mind can be made to see and acknowledge the effect of rest, it will begin developing a willingness to withdraw the senses and rest.
When we pull in the mind and senses voluntarily with the thread of knowledge, we experience true relaxation. After the mind experiences the joyful stillness in the body that results from sense withdrawal, it can be successfully instructed to look within for the true source of happiness.
There are three ways of practicing pratyahara. The first is to withdraw the senses and mind from the external world and then focus them consciously on a chosen object in the realm of mind. Another approach is to see everything in the world as existing within the Atman (the Self). With this approach, nothing is outside the Atman, so there is no need to withdraw the senses. A third practice is to carry out all your activities as if they were sacred duties. In this way you bring sanctity to even the most mundane aspects of life. When a human being gives up all desires of the mind and delights in the Self, then he or she is said to be a person of steady wisdom.
16. I have practiced some of these techniques successfully, but soon I find myself back in my old habits, driven by my old distractions and urges. Do you have any advice?
If you couldn’t master your senses after a couple of attempts, please don’t be discouraged. Believe me, most of us are in the same boat. The process by which the senses move toward the objects in the external world is very subtle. It begins with thinking - you become attached to something just by thinking about it. Something becomes attractive because of an inner craving or because of latent impressions from the past that still exists in the mind. These latent impressions are called samskaras or vasanas. They are like living entities deep in the mind field. Through the windows of the senses and the conscious mind, these samskaras peep out into the external world, looking for something similar to themselves. The moment the mind finds an object that corresponds to its previous memories, a great sense of joy arises. This joy comes from the mind’s identification with the object rather than from the object itself. The mind ignorantly feels, “This is mine. I love it. It is so beautiful.” Attachment arises immediately from this feeling.
Therefore, attachment arises merely from thinking about something. The desire to act is based on that attachment. If that action is impeded, we become angry. If the obstruction cannot be overcome, we become depressed and depression is itself a form of anger. From anger, delusion arises and, from delusion arises loss of memory. With loss of memory, the power of discrimination (buddhi) is lost. It is then impossible to decide anything appropriately and, at this point, a human being is doomed: spiritual practice is not possible.
Study yourself, because only then can you build the foundation that will enable you to withdraw your senses and mind. Examine the nature of pleasure and pain and determine for yourself the results of attachment to the world of names and forms. As a human being you have freedom to create your world you have already done this. Mastering your senses and mind and employing them for true joy is your birthright. Therefore, practice pratyahara to conserve your energies; then concentrate and focus these energies one-pointedly in the direction of true peace and happiness.