Q&A: How to Live in the World and Grow Spiritually
I’ve been a little lonely since yoga became part of my daily life. My friends and I don’t have as much in common, and they seem put off by my new way of life. This sometimes makes me feel uncertain about the course I’ve chosen.
Skillful action is one of the requirements of spiritual life. You may be creating unnecessary problems for yourself by talking too much about your spiritual path. This is common, especially in the beginning, before you have actually experienced the support that comes from higher truth and before the ground underneath you is solid. When you are first beginning your search, you must be very careful.
Instead of clarifying your own ideas and strengthening your sense of purpose, wasting precious time in these meaningless debates can actually increase your doubts.
Take care not to create conflicts with your friends and family members. Don’t challenge their beliefs and lifestyles. This will cause tension in your relationships and will probably create problems for you as well. You don’t have the time to argue with others. In fact, you don’t yet have the strength to sustain your own assertions. Instead of clarifying your own ideas and strengthening your sense of purpose, wasting precious time in these meaningless debates can actually increase your doubts.
Remember, in a war, both sides can easily justify their actions. Don’t expect to strengthen your convictions through reason and logic, and don’t expect others to validate your path. The best logician in the world may also be the best liar. Intellectual understanding ultimately comes up short. Intuitive understanding is the only way to know what’s right and wrong, good and bad for you. You must find a way of living that makes the best use of your time and energy. Only then can you overcome self-condemnation and the fear of being abandoned.
Every human being is always alone. You came into this world alone and you will leave it alone. You will never get inner peace and satisfaction from external objects. You cannot share your inner life, not even with those who claim to love you and those you claim to love—in fact, they are the ones that make you lonely. Even so, at this stage, it is best not to become too adamant and say, “I don’t care whether others like my way of life or not.” Unless you go off to live in the forest or a mountain cave, you are at the mercy of the community in which you live, at least to some degree. Remain a member in good standing. That is the best way to ensure that other people create a minimum number of obstacles for you. Maintain harmony with the external world while finding your way internally.
That’s easier said than done. Do you have some practical advice about how to live in the world while growing spiritually?
Worldly and spiritual life cannot be completely separated. Because you cannot maintain your existence without the help of the material world, you must learn how to obtain sufficient worldly resources and how to use these resources as a means for obtaining spiritual wisdom. The trick is to expand your consciousness without losing yourself in the material world.
In relationship to the world, be like the vigilant crow who focuses on its prey while keeping an eye out for possible danger. The heron is another model of the right attitude toward the world: it stands still in the water, as if in deep meditation, but when the right moment comes, it catches the fish in a flash.
Be still and patient when there is no need to be active. When it is time to act, perform your actions effectively and on time, and again return to a state of stillness. Learn how to relax like a dog relaxes. A dog falls asleep quickly, but if anything moves, it’s awake in a flash and ready for action. When the moment has passed, the dog falls asleep again. Work hard, but take it lightly. Perform your duties to the best of your ability, but with as little attachment as possible.
Don’t get lost in an endless round of worldly duties and obligations. No matter how skillful you are, or how selflessly you carry out your duties, there will still be an endless number of things left undone at the end of your life. If you don’t learn how to balance duties and your personal spiritual practice, you will be lost.
When you are developing the habit of practice, everything counts.
Regulate your life. Go to sleep on time and get up on time. Maintain a schedule and don’t get caught. When it’s time to sleep, sleep. When it’s time to get up, get up. After 10 p.m., even a five-minute deviation from your schedule makes a difference. For example, a close friend calls you after 10 p.m. and you feel you have to talk to him or her. Conversations with those who are close to you affect you deeply, so you may not be able to sleep for a while after the conversation is over. If your sleep is disrupted, it will be difficult to get up on time in the morning. If you sleep late, your schedule is in shambles. From the perspective of your practice, this conversation with your dear friend is not constructive. When you are developing the habit of practice, everything counts. You have to consciously make a strong commitment to your practice and resolve that while you will not ignore the world, you will not let it get in the way of your sadhana either.
Does this mean that I have to abandon close friendships?
No. The most skillful people act in such a way that they are not abandoned by others. But it’s even more important not to abandon others. This is a subtle point. Don’t think, “Now I have found the way, and to hell with everyone else.” Rejecting others is a sign that you have an internal conflict and you feel abandoned. Never reject others because they are not living the right way according to your standards. Instead, look at your own life and remember how long it took you to gather the courage to become firmly established on the path. Think how lucky you are to have gotten help along the way. Rather than focusing on what other people are doing wrong, think about how you can be a tiny lamp to light their way.
Most of us already know better than to be narrow-minded. We know that principles of right and wrong differ according to time and place. We know that God loves us all and we ought to love one another. But somehow we forget. Why? Because we fail to remember the needs of the soul, which has needs, just as the body and mind have needs.
At the level of the soul, are we different from each other? All of us have the same kind of soul—the same awareness or sense of I-ness. We all want to express ourselves. A seed pushes all obstructions away and sends a sprout to the surface of the soil when it gets water, warmth, and light. It’s a miracle that a tender sprout can push pebbles and clods aside and make its way to the surface. It works hard and strives for life. Even if it doesn’t get enough nourishment, it will often survive and struggle to bloom. The same is true with the life of the spirit. The tiny seed of consciousness is constantly trying to express itself, despite life’s hardships. No matter how hard the journey, no matter how many obstacles it must overcome, it never stops.
Constant awareness helps us stay focused on our goal. A disorganized lifestyle invites distractions, which in turn disrupt our awareness of the highest goal of life. That is why, in spite of knowing the value of the goal, we fail to practice sincerely and wholeheartedly. Thus, the tiny seed of consciousness, which constantly tries to express itself, becomes weak and fails to blossom.
Constant awareness helps us stay focused on our goal.
Yet attending to this process of inner unfoldment doesn’t mean we have to abandon our family and friends. What happens is that when this process of unfoldment slows down, we feel sad and lost. That internal sadness manifests in the form of “abandonment.” We feel that we have abandoned others or others have abandoned us, whereas in truth, these are simply symptoms of loneliness for the eternal friend within. It is a conflict that has little basis in external reality. When we notice that the process of inner unfoldment has slowed down, we frantically begin to notice who else doesn’t care for us.
We must change our perception. Only after we have lit the lamp within can we walk safely on our own personal path. Then we can light the path of others at the same time. Spirituality means expansion of consciousness. As your consciousness expands, you embrace all and exclude none. Everyone becomes your friend, yet you remain undisturbed by the friendly or unfriendly activities of those around you.