The yogi in the world
Krishna has told Arjuna that a yogi can attain perfection here in this world, even while fulfilling his earthly responsibilities. In the third chapter he said:
“Therefore, constantly unattached perform that which is your duty. Indeed by unattached action man attains the Supreme. Indeed, perfection was attained through action alone by King Janaka and others. For the maintenance of the world, as an example you should act.
“Whatever the best of men does–this and that–thus other men do; whatever the standard that he sets–that is what the world shall follow. I have no duty whatsoever in the three worlds, nor anything that must be attained, nevertheless I engage in action. Indeed, if I did not tirelessly engage at all in action, then mankind everywhere would follow my example [literally: path or way]. If I did not perform action these worlds would perish, and I would be the cause of confusion: I would destroy these people.
“As the unwise act, attached to action, so the wise should act, unattached, intending to maintain the welfare of the world. One should not unsettle the minds of the ignorant attached to action; the wise should cause them to enjoy all actions–[himself] engaged in their performance” (3:19-26)
Those who pretend to the ideals of yoga while really loving the world and its toys, exuberantly put forth the image of the worldly-wise and debonair yogi, busily rushing around like a squirrel, gathering and storing the nuts of material success and enjoyment “while yet finding time to meditate.” They picture a “balanced life of yoga and action” that shows an overwhelming involvement in action and very little in yoga. (After all, a day in a truly balanced life would consist of eight hours spent in sleep, eight hours spent in work, and eight hours spent in meditation.)
I know of many “balanced” yogis that can barely meditate for an hour even after decades of meditation practice. When they do “meditate” for longer periods of time, they spend a lot of it in chanting and listening (with closed eyes) to inspiration in the form of sermonettes. Many of them cannot sit for meditation in silence, but must have some kind of music or mantra recording going all the time. I do not say this to disparage them–it is not their fault that their yoga methods and their teachers are duds. But I do think that after some years they might figure those facts out and start looking for something better. For it is there. They can find it in the Gita and have no less a teacher than the avatar Krishna and the recorder of his teachings, Vyasa.
The yogi’s retreat
There is no doubt that the yogi may have to work among the noise of urban business, that telephone and computer may be ringing, buzzing, and beeping, and people be talking, talking and talking throughout the day. But when the work time is over it should really be over and the guidelines given by Krishna should be adhered to as much as possible. Here they are:
The yogi should fix his awareness constantly on the Self, remaining in solitude, alone, with controlled mind and lower self, without desires or possessiveness (6:10).
The yogi should fix his awareness constantly on the Self. Unless this is done, what value do the other observances have? No one can sit in meditation twenty-four hours a day, but through constant awareness produced by japa outside meditation he can unceasingly fix his mind on the Self every waking moment of his life. In the thirteenth chapter Krishna will speak of the ideal yogi as having “unswerving devotion to me with single-minded yoga, frequenting secluded places, [having] distaste for the society of men” (13:10).
Remaining in solitude. This can be done in two ways. You can live in a quiet place where after your daily work you can go and be by yourself, where the world can be shut out and forgotten about. If the place is in a solitary location away from town or neighbors, that is best, but any place where you can shut and lock the door and be alone is sufficient, if it is quiet and free from noises of the world and the worldly. Even if you have to move occasionally to ensure this, you will be glad you did.
In the thirteenth chapter of Autobiography of a Yogi, the master yogi, Ram Gopal Muzumdar, asked Yogananda: “Are you able to have a little room where you can close the door and be alone?” When he said that he did, the saint told him: “That is your cave. That is your sacred mountain. That is where you will find the kingdom of God.” This is really important for the unmarried yogi unless he can find other yogis (of the same sex) who will live with him in a quiet place and keep to themselves, out of sight and sound.
Occasionally you should go away even from your home and live in solitude–not in some busy ashram where you will do “karma yoga” and take part in “spiritual” group activities. It is better to stay at home than waste your time in this way. Instead, you should find a place where you can really be all to yourself. If you can prepare your food and eat in solitude, this is good, but if you can go somewhere for (vegetarian) meals where you need speak to no one socially and can immediately go back to your place, that is also good, though not as good. A truly quiet hotel that has room service can be perfectly acceptable, but if you can be alone in some kind of house, cabin or room, it is better.
Sri Ramakrishna had this to say about such solitude:
“It is very necessary now and then to retire into solitude and think of him. In the beginning it is very difficult to keep the mind on God without retiring into solitude.
“When a plant is young it is necessary to put a fence round it. Without a fence it is eaten up by goats and cows. To meditate you should withdraw yourself within or retire to a secluded spot or into the forest and always discriminate between the real and the unreal. God alone is truth; namely, the reality, and all the rest is unreal and transitory. Discriminating in this manner renounce the transient things from the mind.…
“Keshab Sen, Pratap and others told me, ‘Sir, ours is the view of King Janaka.’ I said, ‘One doesn’t become King Janaka by mere words of mouth. King Janaka first performed so many austerities in solitude. Do something first. Then only you may become King Janaka.’…
“And notice also that this very mind acquires knowledge, dispassion and devotion by dwelling on God in solitude.… The world is water and the mind is like milk. If you pour milk into water they get mixed and you cannot find pure milk anymore. If you churn butter after turning milk into curd and put it in water it will float. So first churn the butter of knowledge and devotion by following spiritual practices in solitude. That butter will never mix. Even if you put it in the water of the world it will float.”
Sri Mahendranath Gupta, known as “M,” was a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and the recorder of these words in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. In Yogananda’s autobiography he is called “Master Mahashaya, the blissful devotee.” He followed these words of Sri Ramakrishna all his life. He had several isolated places right in Calcutta, known only to himself, where he would go for days at a time to practice meditation. On occasion he would come home for meals and then go back to his secret haven. At other times he left Calcutta for a solitary ashram owned by him.
Both forms of solitude–at home and away–are necessary for the yogi.
Alone. If the yogi is married, still it is important to spend time by oneself each day. This is not impossible. I have an Indian friend whose mother is a great tapaswin. Though living in a joint family, occasionally she retires to a quiet room in the back of the house and stays there for days, weeks, and even months, seeing no one and having her food put outside her door. During these periods, if for some reason she comes into another part of the house everyone knows she is coming because a strong fragrance of roses precedes her, and if she speaks it is as though she is spraying rose essence into the air. I know other yogis in India and America, both men and women, who have private areas in their home for their sadhana. One friend even has a secret room she alone knows how to get into. Another has a small temple behind his house.
The important thing is to be alone in your mind. When you are in your “holy place” let no one interrupt you or call out to you or communicate with you in any way. During my first trip to India, in the ashram of Anandamayi Ma I met an astonishing man, Doctor Pannalal. Someone told me that he had at one time been the governor of Benares and lived in a palace. Behind the palace he had a small hut (kutir) built for meditation. He gave strict orders to everyone that he was never to be disturbed when he was in there. But one day the palace caught fire, so someone ran and banged on the door, shouting that the palace was burning. “I don’t care. Leave me alone!” he called back. This was repeated some more times–always with the same response. After some hours he came out of the hut and found the palace a heap of ash and rubble. Walking over to where his family, staff, and onlookers were standing, he calmly observed: “It looks like we need to build a new one.” That was all.
And by the way, wherever you are, do not overdo “satsang.” Occasional company with other yogis is beneficial if only spiritual subjects are spoken of, but let it be no more than once or twice a week, unless you are living with other yogis and want a daily satsang.
With controlled mind and [lower] self. I think you will find that solitude will help tremendously in mastering body and mind. However, yama, niyama, meditation and proper vegetarian diet are absolute essentials of such control. You will also find that spiritual reading has a very beneficial effect on your endeavors to purify mind and heart. By “spiritual reading” I mean holy scriptures, teachings of God-realized masters and the biographies of saints. Some philosophical or devotional books can also be good, but be sure the authors have spiritual experience so its vibration will be conveyed to you through their words.
Without desires or possessions. Now this is very important. The karma yogi is not just to work, he is to work well and carefully–not the sloppy and careless way that supposedly is a mark of a “spiritual” person who is indifferent to material things. At the same time, the yogi must not become caught in the trap of perfectionism, of “success,” of the “bigger and more is better” attitude which would push him onward to increase his involvement in the world.
A devotee once asked Sri Ramakrishna: “What about worldly activities, duties of life?” He replied: “Yes, do them too as much as is necessary for living in the world. But you should pray to him crying in solitude so that you may perform them selflessly. And you should say to him, ‘O Lord! Please reduce my worldly duties because, O God! I find that if I get involved in too much work I forget you. I may think I am acting selflessly but it turns out to be selfish.’”
There we have it: the yogi should not avoid responsibility, but he should sincerely pray that his worldly duties and obligations will be reduced as much as possible–leaving it up to God to decide what “as much as possible” means. At the same time, the yogi should actively simplify his life in relation to the world, including the matter of personal possessions. (That does not mean getting rid of sacred and spiritual things, including books. I have known some deluded yogis who every time they “simplified” their life only got rid of holy imagery and spiritual books.)
So we are back at the home base of solitude. “Dwelling in a solitary place,… he is fit for union with Brahman” (Bhagavad Gita 18:52-53). I am not speaking of being anti-social, but of being a serious yogi.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life