How can we live a life that focuses on spiritual practice?

A student was inspired by us retreating to a life in the bush to focus on our spiritual practice. She would like to take a similar step but, finding the preparation tough, wrote the following:

“I find myself working 8am-6pm to build a strong financial foundation to retreat from this path to spend the majority of our hours on spiritual practice.  However, I’m concerned I will be ‘behind’ in my spiritual practice by the time I am truly able to focus on it.  In the meantime I am preoccupied with working in order to move towards enlightenment. It feels completely incongruous to what I’m trying to achieve. Grateful for your thoughts on this.”

Here are my thoughts: I think it is wise to “build a strong financial foundation” before embarking on such a step. I was about 50 years old when embarking on this journey. If I would have been half that age I may have said, “just do it and sort out the consequences later”, but being mature-aged I had experienced that things that can go wrong often do. For this reason I suggest to have a plan B, C, D and E.

What really helped me with the transition was the old Vedic teaching of the ashramas (stages of life). The Vedas teach that we ideally spent the first part of our life as students of life, the second part as householders, the third section as forest dwellers focusing on ones spiritual practice and the last quarter of life as a spiritually liberated sage. The stage in which most of us are is householder (grhastha). This stage of life consists of finding a partner, usually raising a family and having a profession or running a business. Important is to understand that according to the Vedic view this area of life is not counter to spiritual practice but it is spiritual practice itself. In Western philosophy we have the Cartesian split of body and mind. In many Indian philosophies on the other hand the world and the body is nothing but a crystallization of spirit and by fulfilling the needs of the body and society we are in fact doing the work of the Divine, of spirit.

I remember, as a 20-year old budding revolutionary walking towards a huge Indian government building that had a 50-metre long stone carving across is front portico saying, “Governments work is God’s work”. Without wanting to embark here into a survey of scandals, embezzlements or scams in which Indian politicians or in fact politicians of pretty much any country of the world find themselves, the stone carving is basically right. But not only government’s work is God’s work but any decent and honest work is. This is because human society is of divine purpose; it is the Divine becoming Itself as humanity. By serving humanity and society then we are serving the Divine.

In other words there is no dichotomy, no conflict, between being active and participatory in society and between doing spiritual practice. This is also conveyed through the four Vedic purusha arthas (human objectives), which say that after obtaining material wealth (artha) and sexual satisfaction (kama), (most-often resulting in progeny), both obtained by following right action (dharma), we finally obtain spiritual liberation (moksha). Apart from dharma (right action) which applies all the time, the other three generally follow a temporal sequence with artha (wealth) first and moksha (liberation) last. Please note, we do not obtain the last by short-circuiting and avoiding the first three and going straight to the forest. In fact such an approach the Bhagavad Gita calls ‘cowardice’.

Artha and kama (sexual satisfaction) are things we obtain during the householder stage of life. This stage is nothing but a course that prepares us for the deeper immersion in spirituality that comes later. This deeper immersion easily succeeds after we have completed our duties towards society. If we do not fulfill our duty towards society we enter into a karmic debt that makes spiritual practice and later liberation more difficult. We should not think that living in society and serving it is an obstacle but that society, life, the body, and all matter, is spirit itself. It is crystallized spirit.

Important during the householder stage (which on average may go from age 25 to 50 but this is just a guide) is that we spent the limited time we have for spiritual pursuits with sophisticated methods that are suitable for householders and not time-intense methods originally designed for monks, recluses, ascetics and other people who were living outside of society. I have described examples of such methods in my cycle of textbooks. If you follow these or similar methods while transiting through your householder stage you need not worry that you are spiritually behind when being able to make your move to the forest. Trust that you will be well prepared.

During the householder stage of life it is sufficient to practice a combined 2 hours per day of asana, pranayama and meditation. You may think that you do not have that much time but my wife, Monica, for example followed this regimen while she did her five-year doctor degree and came in the second highest scoring in her course. She consistently outscored a large amount of students who, apart from being half her age, also invested even those two hours into study. You would think that she had always 2 hours less to study but this is not the right way of looking at it. 2 hours per day of asana, pranayama and meditation must be seen as brain and mind-maintenance. Your brain and mind will work much more efficiently if you take this time and you will get much more done in any profession and job. Your work will be of higher quality than the work of those who cram every single second full of chores and errands. No brain can work well under these conditions.

Now to the final part of your question, “I am preoccupied with working in order to move towards enlightenment. It feels completely incongruous to what I’m trying to achieve”. We live in a highly industrialized and specialized society. In most professions we are confronted with what Karl Marx called ‘estrangement’ that is we cannot see and feel anymore how what we are doing is benefiting anybody and how it is doing any good. Because of that our job seems a meaningless drudgery. And let’s not kid ourselves, a lot and maybe even the bigger part of industrial society is not doing any good to anybody and the least to the biosphere. And this is what we feel. We often feel that our work, our job is destructive rather than constructive and because of that we feel that it is non-spiritual that it is in fact “incongruous” with what we are trying to achieve and in some cases it may actually be.

How can we get out of this? At this point I suggest we go back to a knowledge that was handed down in almost all of the world’s indigenous cultures and traditions. Just recently I found exactly the same knowledge when studying the religion of the Oglala Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation, a tribe of Native Americans. The Oglala say that every girl or boy by the time they reach puberty needs to have a vision in which the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka) or one of It’s many intermediaries communicates to them what the purpose of their life is and how this expresses itself in their activities. The Oglala say that if a teenager does not have such a vision they will get angry, destructive and may even become dangerous for their community and the surrounding biosphere. In order to achieve such a vision the Oglala shamans introduced vision quests, rituals and initiations to their young people.

The Oglala here portray an intelligence that our society either never had or has lost long time ago. Looking back at when I was young I can see very clearly that I was unconsciously looking for such a vision. I was trying to figure out what my purpose was, what was I meant to give to others, what was my contribution to society going to be through which I was going to find meaning? Because none of these questions were answered, as the Oglala predict, I turned angry. My teenager years were marred by violence, recreational substance abuse, hurting others and destructive behavior of all kinds. I was certainly a danger not only to myself but also to the people around me.

While this may be an extreme case, also the remaining in a self-denigrating work situation or relationship or the turning a blind eye to misconduct of those in power can be the result of not attaining a vision of who we could be or become. Patanjali, the ancient author of the Yoga Sutra, speaks in several stanzas of seeking visions. After reading about the Oglala, I reflected back on my yogic life and realized then that any strength and foresight I gained actually came through visions. Often provoked through yogic practice, sometimes unexpectedly a window would open and I gained a glimpse of who I could become in the future. I sometimes (sometimes I didn’t) trusted this glimpse enough to enact on it.

The reason I am writing this is because I think it is important what we do for a crust and it is not something that should be decided by reason alone but by a higher faculty. The indigenous cultures, and Patanjali agrees, believed that there is a higher intelligence on the other side. An intelligence that does want to teach us and does want to embody itself as us.

This is certainly something that has been amply confirmed in my own life. When this intelligence is enacting itself through us we often call the ensuing state being-in-the-zone. It means that what we are doing has a strange quality of being effortless (although there might have been a lot of effort to get to this stage). It also means that there is an absence of internal dialogue, meaning our mind is still and at ease while we are doing it. We are not asking anymore, “Am I really meant to be doing this? Is this truly where I should be?”

In yogic terms we are calling this state of being-in-the-zone doing one’s svadharma. The most direct way to find it is to ask this super-intelligence what it is that it wants to do through us. After this question has been truthfully asked what remains is to bring ourselves into a state of receptiveness, a state of willingness to receive the answer. In my own practice I found that the answer is always there but what is often lacking is my own readiness to hear it, to receive it.

In many ways we can reduce all techniques of yoga to methods of making us more receptive to receiving these answers. Yes, that’s right, the deep purpose of asana, pranayama, kriya, meditation and samadhi is nothing but to remove all conditioning so that we can get in contact with that super-intelligence that has not only crystallized itself as this entire vast multiverse but also resides right there deep in the core of our hearts.

But consider this: In order to receive the answers you must realize the intelligence on the other side as capable of giving the answers. It took me a long time to understand that. I always thought that this Intelligence (the Oglala call it the Wakan Tanka and Patanjali calls it Ishvara) must convince me before I believe in it. What needs to happen instead is that we realize It. The rest happens (more or less) by itself.

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle started his yogic practices over 38 years ago. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Gregor spent 14 months in Mysore, India, and in 1997 was authorized to teach Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion.

Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.

Posted in Ecology, Society/ civilisation, Yoga Philosophy.

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