Spirituality [for the masses]
What is spirituality? Spirituality in general are just any set of practices that enables you to lead a more content and fulfilled life. When you are content, your mind is less agitated. When the mind is free of agitation, it gives clarity, which gives further peace of mind. Whatever endeavor you undertake you will have many times more fulfillment (whether is progress or not) than you would without spirituality.
Spirituality is about growth, which implies change, inner transformation. We, as conscious self-aware beings, have the ability to engage that change. No change. No growth. If there is no growth, then one remains prone to the same discontent tomorrow as they were yesterday. The same mental agitations, chatter, noise — which leads to numerous psychological ailments – fear, worries, depression, anger, jealousy, insecurity, vanity, angst, etc. The very fact that 16 million people go to practice yoga, shows the immense desire to change and to grow for the betterment of their lives. Spiritual growth is about re-writing your psychology, bit by bit. You will know you’re going in the right direction when you feel increasingly content, calm, fulfilled, and generally a happy person.
It also makes one compassionate or benevolent in ones own way, according to ones temperaments (gunas) and material constituents (prakriti). Like helping the poor, or creating great works of art (music, poetry, literature, dance), or great spiritual works. Any work, when done charitably (with no attachment) is humanitarian (sweeping the floor, protecting a tree, fighting for a cause, teaching a student, writing a book, drawing a painting,…).
The difference between a “spiritual person” and a less evolved human or animal, is that the former deals with a situation with calm, focus, repose. He does not instinctively and immediately react to the situation around them. If humans were just reactive to their problems, then they would not need a brain (i.e. evolved human brain), they can just be like dogs, lions, cows, and other beasts. What’s worse than being an animal, is being between animal and spiritually evolved: the less evolved human beings who are stuck between being reactive and yet are bound by their evolved brain (to try and solve the problem in a civil way), and so causes long term resentments, upsets, mental agitations not found in reactive animals. The Bhagavad Gita describes a spiritual person as such, when Arjuna asks Krishna what are the characteristics of an evolved/spiritual person? Krishna says such a person retains his calm, remains centered within, and does not get agitated, under the most trying of circumstances.
Even great saints differ dramatically in how their spirituality manifests – Ammachi, Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Thiagaraja, Arunagirinthar, Buddha, Aghoris, Siddhars, Samanars, Rishis, Shamans, etc. Each was dramatically different in their own way. For some it might look like their spirituality did not manifest in any way humanitarian. Some just lived and died in caves meditating and reaching their goals. According spiritual tradition, these people, contribute as well: they have an effect on the fabric of the universe surrounding that area, constantly feeding and replenishing the desire for spirituality, for seeking Truth, in that area. Spiritually receptive beings, including plants and animals sense the spiritual energy in such areas. Is it a surprise even today, that in no other country than India, thousands of people (whose names and lives we may never know) take to the extreme spiritual path of yogis. Which brings us to the subtopic, the Yogi.
Spirituality [for the Yogi]
In contrast to the above, the serious spiritual aspirant does not follow any “spirituality”. The true seeker risks the danger of spirituality becoming an intellectual preoccupation, just another vanity like religion. A true seeker of truth will discover that sooner or later, and when he does, he will move on. To become a yogi. He will move beyond the need for any sort of scaffolding like spirituality (i.e. even an association with the word) to support him. Worst thing that can happen is to get trapped in it. Like religion, it stifles one from doing critical independent thinking, contemplation, and real meditation. Without either you have nothing to act on, and your pursuit for truth becomes a wistful preoccupation; just another illusion just substituting for another.
I believe in spirituality in the way of the original Hindu thinkers, in particular the darshana of yoga. That is, the science of yoga and applying it to life. To me yoga is: yoga + karm + critical thinking + bhakti.
Yoga by itself will not get us anywhere, unless it is applied to life, as in karm (to act) or to engage in life with the sword of yoga. Karm when undertaken with yoga leads to outward expansion which bootstraps your inner growth (and automatically dispenses with the need for too much reflection). In fact I’d say it accelerates your inner growth far more than doing yoga without karm.
Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, so also life experiences. This is also one of the essential messages of the Gita as well: to act (to engage in action, in life) armed/tempered with yoga. To be clear, this doesn’t imply uninhibited sensory indulgence as in the materialistic slogans, “enjoy life to the fullest”. The key is that it has to be tempered by yoga (yoga + karm + critical thinking + bhakti). That is, every act, every decision, and even every thought, is subject to observation. The mind observing the mind, to a point where it becomes an awareness of itself.
Where does bhakti come in? If you take bhakti in the context of karm, i.e. putting it in action… it becomes a heart-centered or universe-centered approach to life. Just like engaging [karma] yoga in life, engaging bhakti in life requires you to carry over the same universe-centered exhilaration you get from say reading a piece of bhakti poetry or a particular raga, into life, instead of confining it within the walls of worship. In a society that is intellectually-centered and fast paced it can be tricky to be metaphysically-centered without looking lost or disinterested in the material pleasantries of life. Karm is about engaging life, and bhakti is about engaging the moment . I’m using bhakti in a much broader sense than it was intended; or maybe it was intended that way.
Where does critical thinking come in? I believe that critical thinking (and to be an independent thinker) has two purposes. First it is needed to take yoga and put into action, to engage it, in all walks of life with effort. Secondly it serves as the critical feedback loop for you to refine your yoga / path further. For how else would you know, without testing it? this comes from engaging in life. The intellect serves as a guardian, like the hood of the cobra covering the siva lingam.
I feel all the siddhars and aghoris were independent thinkers. They did not follow any “religion” or even a “spiritual path”. These words didn’t even exist back then. They approached it from first principles, from astute experimentation and observation (not reflection or brooding) at the level of yoga + karm + critical thinking + bhakti.
If one is observant enough, one comes to realize that inner growth and its corresponding outward expansion, never really comes from yoga alone (nor meditation, intellectual reasoning, or reflection), but from life experiences, tempered with the astute insight/guidance of yoga.
But what about yogis? It seems like they reach great spiritual heights without any karm or acting. But in actuality they do act — the act of making the choice and by engaging yoga in their life as a yogi.
Sometimes the question arises, what about detachment? As for detachment, experiencing of life via yoga+bhakti, is itself detached, just as acting in life via yoga+karm is detached; anything done with yoga is automatically detached — even if it seems attached to the outside observer. Attachment/detachment is a whole can of worms for a later blog.
People have different approaches to engaging yoga, depending on their strengths, deficiencies, and needs: bhakti (devotion), karma (action), jnana (knowledge), raja (meditation), or any combination.
The serious spiritual aspirant moves in a direction where instead of seeing oneself just playing out his role as just another cog in the cosmic wheel, he becomes the wheel itself.
The danger of religion without being tempered by yoga (in which case it no longer remains a “religion”) is that people end up sitting and pontificating in front of their Gods, instead of taking responsibility for their actions and putting the effort required to enact the change they hope to find.