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” (Bhagavad Gita 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.
Keeping the world out
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.
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.
An occasional retreat
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.