Spirituality [for the masses]
What is spirituality? Spirituality is any set of practices that enables you to lead a more content and fulfilled life. But what is it to be content? 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,…). It is important not to judge another persons benevolence. For example, you cannot spite a poet for not being the field saving peoples lives. Both are expressing the compassion to the world in accordance to their gunas and prakriti.
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.
But… What about Social Obligations
Some common questions/objections that arises when taking the path of a yogi:
- What about your obligation to be a family man?
Who is anyone to tell anyone else how to live one’s life? For that one needs to define in very concrete terms what is “life” (i.e. not just ones opinions nor that society’s opinion). Any genuine pursuit of that question is bound to bring one to metaphysical, ontological, epistemological questions like the nature of our existence, what is consciousness, nature of space, time, the origin of the time, the universe, death, etc. If you can’t answer those, then you can’t answer the purpose of the thing you call “life” (for many it is just the biological function attached the physical body, at the same time for many it is something beyond the body). Therefore, nobody can tell you how to life your “life”. You can live your life as a family man, sanyasi, aghori, lesbian, etc. For example, one in a million people who take to spiritual inquiry attain some sort of enlightenment. Some attain enlightenment to the level that is visible everyone around, and some attain simply different internal states and leave their body as such.
- What about the social obligation to parents?
What drives a person to adhyatmic pursuit transcends social constructs. The end result to human kind (whether directly or cosmically, by great yogis, small and large) more than compensates for the suffering inflicted on the family due to the loss of their child to a yogic path.
- What about the biological imperative to pay back the fact that you were given birth to, so you are obligated to do the same?
There is nothing that prevents a yogi who dies, from being born again in a family — i.e. through someone else’s biological imperative. There will always be biological imperative to reproduce, even if 99% of the world becomes yogis, the 1% will trigger the cycle of biological imperative once again. It can never reach 100%, as that is an ideal state.
- What about the biological imperative to reproduce and continue your family/genetic lineage?
In the grand cosmic order of things, the Earth with its 6 billion people is just a speck of dust, and in cosmic time scale of the universe, the Earth will come and go in the blink of an eye. Secondly, you are not just the physical body (or the genetic material associated with it). What you are transcends the body (you may even been a worm, a whale, a rock, or a star; each with its level of consciousness awareness). To limit yourself to just “this human body” would be very small-minded.
- What about the obligation to social structure? That if you did not marry who will take care of you?
This is another lame excuse. The person who takes the adhyatmic path is one who has put his life in the hands of “God”. For example one who says “Bhagvan [Krishna/Shiva/Muruga…] will take care of me”. Or in the hands of his pursuit itself. That is, he has the courage to take on whatever that may come. He also is a type of person who has no regrets. Adhyatmic path is not for people who look back or have regrets. Regretting is for losers. Leaders just learn their lessons and move on.
- 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.