The yogi in the world
Krishna taught 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 action which is your duty. Indeed, by performing action while unattached, man attains the Supreme. Perfection was attained by kings like Janaka through action alone. For the mere maintenance of the world, you should act. Whatever the greatest man does, thus do the rest; whatever standard he sets, the world follows that. For Me there is nothing whatever to be done in the three worlds, nor is there anything not attained to be attained. Nevertheless I engage in action. Indeed, if I, unwearied, should not engage in action at all, mankind would follow My path everywhere. If I did not perform action, these worlds would perish and I would be the cause of confusion; I would destroy these creatures. While those who are unwise act from attachment to action, so the wise should act without attachment, intending to maintain the welfare of the world. One should not unsettle the minds of the ignorant who are attached to action; the wise one should cause them to enjoy all [dharmic] actions, while himself performing actions in a disciplined manner” (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 truly balanced life would consist of eight hours spent in sleep, work, and meditation respectively.
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 that 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
The greatest monk of the Christian church was Saint Arsenios the Great who lived in the Egyptian desert. At the beginning of his spiritual search he prayed for guidance from God. A voice sounded from heaven, saying: “Arsenios: flee men.” Which he did, and became “an earthly angel and a heavenly man” as a result.
Solitude is very necessary for the yogi. There is no doubt that the yogi may have to work among the noise of urban business, that telephone, fax, 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: “The yogi should concentrate constantly on the Self, remaining in solitude, alone, with controlled mind and body, having no desires and free from material acquisitiveness” (6:10).
Remaining in solitude. This holy solitude is an ideal to be striven for. It need not involve living miles from others. Location is the key. For example, I am writing this in a house located on the side of a tree-covered mountain. When I look out the window I see a neighborhood which includes a campground at the foot of the mountain, but no noise is heard from there. I can also see a minor highway at the foot of the mountains across the valley that is also silent. The important thing is that the atmosphere is totally solitary. It feels as though this property is many miles from other habitations. The windows are kept open much of the year and nearly the only sounds occasionally heard are birds and wind.
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. A yogi living in a tranquil neighborhood can turn his home into a spiritual haven and live in there alone with God. I knew two yogis who lived in Beverly Hills in a sound-proofed apartment in splendid solitude. If the place is in a solitary location away from the town or neighbors, that is best, but any place where you can shut and lock the doors 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.
It was said of an ancient Christian hermit who lived in the desert of Israel: “He went into the desert and took the whole world with him.” So living in quiet solitude while filling the mind with worldly clamor is defeating the purpose. It is crucial to control the telephone, not let others invade your quiet, and not bring in the world through newspapers, news magazines, or news programs on radio and television.
newspapers, news magazines, or news programs on radio and television.
In the thirteenth chapter of Autobiography of a Yogi, the master yogi, Ram Gopal Muzumdar, asks Yogananda: “Are you able to have a little room where you can close the door and be alone? 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. (I knew a nun who used to climb up into a tree so she could be alone, hidden by the leaves.) At the same time you must find the right balance between being alone and being with those you live with.
Occasionally you should go away even from your home and live in solitude–not in some busy ashram where you will be pestered to do “karma yoga” and be expected to take part in externalizing 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 in some kind of house or cabin, or room in a single-story building, it is better.
Sri Ramakrishna had this to say about such solitude:
“The mind cannot dwell on God if it is immersed day and night in worldliness, in worldly duties and responsibilities; it is most necessary to go into solitude now and then and think of God. To fix the mind on God is very difficult, in the beginning, unless one practices meditation in solitude. When a tree is young it should be fenced all around; otherwise it may be destroyed by cattle.
“To meditate, you should withdraw within yourself or retire to a secluded corner or to the forest. And you should always discriminate between the Real and the unreal. God alone is real, the Eternal Substance; all else is unreal, that is, impermanent. By discriminating thus, one should shake off impermanent objects from the mind.”
“One must go into solitude to attain this divine love. To get butter from milk you must let it set into curd in a secluded spot: if it is too much disturbed, milk won’t turn into curd. Next, you must put aside all other duties, sit in a quiet spot, and churn the curd. Only then do you get butter.
“Further, by meditating on God in solitude the mind acquires knowledge, dispassion, and devotion. But the very same mind goes downward if it dwells in the world.…
“The world is water and the mind milk. If you pour milk into water they become one; you cannot find the pure milk any more. But turn the milk into curd and churn it into butter. Then, when that butter is placed in water, it will float. So, practice spiritual discipline in solitude and obtain the butter of knowledge and love. Even if you keep that butter in the water of the world the two will not mix. The butter 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. 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. Sometimes 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. To see the results he gained from following Sri Ramakrishna’s advice, read the ninth chapter of Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi: “The Blissful Devotee and His Cosmic Romance.”
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 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 house and stays there for days, weeks, and even months, seeing no one and have 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. I once went to visit the head of a huge residential educational complex in rural Bengal and found him completely alone in a small hut he had built just outside the door of his house, and where he spent all his mornings before work and much of his free time in the afternoons and evenings. One of my friends has a secret room she alone knows how to get into and 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 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 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. In that situation, go ahead, but sometimes absent yourself for a while.
With controlled mind and body. I think you will find that solitude will help tremendously in mastering body and mind. However, 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 the scriptures and words 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 realization, for their vibrations will be conveyed to you through their words.
Having no desires and free from material acquisitiveness. 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–unless he has a virtual art museum and library that is a symptom of addiction to “stuff.”)
Concentrate 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 japa of Om 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).
So we are back to the home base of solitude. “When a man seeks solitude,…that man is ready for oneness 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
Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:
- The Battlefield of the Mind
- On the Field of Dharma
- Taking Stock
- The Smile of Krishna
- Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
- Experiencing the Unreal
- The Unreal and the Real
- The Body and the Spirit
- Know the Atman!
- Practical Self-Knowledge
- Perspective on Birth and Death
- The Wonder of the Atman
- The Indestructible Self
- “Happy the Warrior”
- Buddhi Yoga
- Religiosity Versus Religion
- Perspective on Scriptures
- How Not To Act
- How To Act
- Right Perspective
- Wisdom About the Wise
- Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
- The Way of Peace
- Calming the Storm
- First Steps in Karma Yoga
- From the Beginning to the End
- The Real “Doers”
- Our Spiritual Marching Orders
- Freedom From Karma
- In the Grip of the Monster
- Devotee and Friend
- The Eternal Being
- The Path
- Caste and Karma
- Action–Divine and Human
- The Mystery of Action and Inaction
- The Wise in Action
- Sacrificial Offerings
- The Worship of Brahman
- Action–Renounced and Performed
- Freedom (Moksha)
- The Brahman-Knower
- The Goal of Karma Yoga
- Getting There
- The Yogi’s Retreat
- The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
- Union With Brahman
- The Yogi’s Future
- Success in Yoga
- The Net and Its Weaver
- Those Who Seek God
- Those Who Worship God and the Gods
- The Veil in the Mind
- The Big Picture
- The Sure Way To Realize God
- Day, Night, and the Two Paths
- The Supreme Knowledge
- Universal Being
- Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
- Worshipping the One
- Going To God
- Wisdom and Knowing
- Going To The Source
- From Hearing To Seeing
- The Wisdom of Devotion
- Right Conduct
- The Field and Its Knower
- Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
- Seeing the One Within the All
- The Three Gunas
- The Cosmic Tree
- The All-pervading Reality
- The Divine and the Demonic
- Faith and the Three Gunas
- Food and the Three Gunas
- Religion and the Three Gunas
- Tapasya and the Three Gunas
- Charity and the Three Gunas
- Sannyasa and Tyaga
- Deeper Insights On Action
- Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
- The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
- The Three Kinds of Happiness
- The Great Devotee
- The Final Words
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