Spirituality is often highlighted by images of recluses, hermits, monks, and ascetics. However, what it means to be spiritual is to be completely aligned and attuned to the spirit. This means to go beyond awareness of only the material and realise the spirit. It is to realise our identity beyond just that of our mind and body. Spirituality doesn't require one to retreat entirely from society, take strict vows, and live in seclusion away from others and live in harsh environments.
Part of the process of becoming self-realised and God-realised, is to let go of our attachment to our body. The body is a perishable tool and vessel. We are bound to cycles of birth and death in this plane of existence. However, this natural body allows us to realise our Divine nature and our higher identity as the imperishable, eternal soul. By denying indulgence in bodily desires, one rejects the further development of desire and attachment to the material world. By directing the senses away from the material world, and instead focusing upon contemplation of God and the Soul, we effectively transform our mind and our senses.
Monasticism is just one religious way of life in which one renounces their worldly pursuits to devote oneself fully to their spiritual path. It often is considered to resemble a life of seclusion or simplicity in a monastery. Those monks often have religious vows whereby they adhere to certain set limitations of lifestyle which supports their spiritual endeavours. Various Judeo- Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu paths make use of this lifestyle to varying degrees and include many similar vows, standards, and rules to one another. Other traditions take a far more solitary approach, retreating as far from social life as possible. This helps to create an environment some prefer or require to support inward reflection and contemplation and to retract their senses effectively.
Overall, there is an overarching similarity of maintaining few possessions and withdrawing inwards into a simple life. Diving into service, labour, and prayer, and meditation is common practice among a plethora of traditions and faiths.
Hermits, solitaries, sannyasin, sadhus, yogis, monks, stylites, heremitics, and anchorites all have similar endeavours. Of course, the state or focus of prayer may vary. Some focuses may include becoming closer to their preferred form of the Divine, engaging in deep prayer, meditation, contemplation, as a means for becoming more self-aware in various regards, and for some kind of personal development. Some yogis and sadhus have an aim to focus their energies both subtle and gross, physical, mental, and spiritual towards the Divine or liberation of some degree.
Nearly all ascetics tend to utilise strategies of chastity and retreating from the distractions of social life, society as a whole, of sex and family life, or perhaps even to escape the standards of cleanliness, dress, or communications set forth by society. Many adhere to certain diets for a vitalised mind and body and to restrict indulgence in taste. Several traditions turn to manual labour to support themselves and to support their self-development goal of humility and service.
All traditions maintain some ideals of virtuosity. Many traditions have particular tenets of righteous behaviour, for example, the ten commandments, the four major vows of Orthodox Christian monks, the dharmic structure to life from Hindu scripture, Buddhist Four Noble Truths, and the yogic system's yamas or "right way of life". These are certain principles of righteous living of their respective paths. These may include tenets of non-violence, truthfulness, obedience towards preceptors, purity of mind and body, humility, self-education, prayer, and so on.
Interestingly, many different paths have strong principles of humility, death of the self or ego, and dedication to service and leading a selfless life. These can be seen as dominant principles of spiritual lifestyle along with prayer that seems to transcend all religious dogmas and traditions.
Why do different paths offer such intensely defined lifestyles? What can we take away from these spiritual lifestyles? What underlying principles can we all take from them and apply to our everyday lives? Of course, not everyone is called into an austere and spiritual lifestyle as these sorts of hermits, sadhus, yogis, and monks. Even among such monks and renunciates, there are hugely varying degrees of asceticism. Although many of us don’t subscribe to such practices, there are important and relevant principles applied to asceticism that we can incorporate into our daily lives to help us remain spiritually productive as we continue to live within society.
The previous blog post talked about solitude. To tie into that, spiritual solitude and asceticism are all about manipulating one’s environment to support the retraction of one’s senses away from the external world. In this way, we can reduce our desires and attachment to the world.
Chapter Three of the Bhagavad Gita covers the topic of Karma Yoga, or, the yoga of action. In this chapter, the Divine incarnation Krishna speaks to Arjuna, his friend, and student, while educating him about yoga and ‘right action’. As Arjuna himself is in a significant and personal dilemma, Krishna guides him through the difficulty. In the middle of his discourse, Krishna says:
“O Arjuna, knowledge is veiled by desire, and desire is therefore the great enemy of the wise. Desire burns like an insatiable fire.” (3.39)
Krishna is saying that desires create only more desires, and later, Krishna says how the mind functions regarding the mechanism of desire, and that the world is full of desire.
“The senses, the mind, and the intellect are said to be desire’s abode. Through these, desire deludes the embodied Self (soul) by concealing Its wisdom. Therefore, O Arjuna, you should control the senses first, and slay this source of sin that destroys both knowledge and discrimination…O Arjuna, knowing that which is greater than the intellect and steadying yourself by your spiritual strength, slay this enemy in the form of desire, which is difficult to overcome.” (3.43)
Paramahamsa Vishwananda further comments on Krishna’s words, explaining how the mind gets soiled by impurities originating in desire. Whereby, the mind loses sight of what is “good” and “bad” and through desire is lead to sinful acts.
“There are two forms of desire. The desire of the mind drags one completely to the outside. The other desire, the longing of the heart, is the gateway to Heaven. When you train yourself to transform the desires of the mind through meditation, and perform your duty, and accept the Will of God, then these desires, which can’t be killed, are transformed from rajasic to sattvic in nature.”
“Lord Krishna says, ‘first control the senses: they are easier to control because they are outside…Don’t let the mind dwell on the attraction of worldly perishable things, which will bring you sorrow.’ Use all the senses, transforming them by serving God, by hearing His glory, by chanting, and by concentrating [on Him]...[and] serve God through the action. Like that, you don’t go into the game of worldly enjoyments. Keep yourself busy with the right things. If you start running after these desires...it will destroy knowledge and discrimination...In karma-yoga, if you do everything in this world with an attitude of surrender, you will attain Him.”
Ultimately, we don’t need to retreat into caves and sleep on rocky ground or starve ourselves to remind ourselves that our body is perishable. To be truly spiritual is to be in an inward state of realisation. We don’t achieve a true state of spirituality by just putting on a monk’s robes or living in a monastery, we achieve it through an inward state of mind, of surrender and of Love. It’s really about dedicating our whole mind, body, and spirit to God, and we can each do that in any action, at any time. This is a true renunciate.
You can see that the examples of great renunciates and saints applied themselves in hard labour to ground themselves in their work. In reality, they were contemplating the Divine, consciousness, and the Love of God. By not having families or focusing on achieving career success or obtaining great wealth, they were instead dedicating themselves and their time to achieving the heights of Love within themselves.
Wherever we are, we can become detached from the fruits of the action through surrender. We leave that which is of the world to the world, and we hold onto that which belongs to the spirit, which is Love. In the famous bible verse, John 15:19 is often simplified into “be in the world, but not of it”. This closely coincides with the principles laid out by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. This means that we act and do our role ascribed to us within society, but choose to hold onto that which is not of this world, which is the soul, our spirit, and its Divine Love relationship with God.
This is true spirituality, where we are truly realised of our eternal and imperishable nature. We can take inspiration from examples of the great ascetics of the many traditions throughout time. We can acknowledge their extreme forms of penance and renunciation in an effort to remind ourselves of the nature of the mind and body. We can acknowledge their esteem to retreat into that solitude – that space within us where we can experience our true divine nature and Love of God. This transformation of our mind allows us to access the eternal treasure within our hearts.
Click here to read our first post on Solitude: Loneliness Vs. Solitude on the Spiritual Path
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