I think this Wednesday’s passage on “The Fallacy of Togetherness” really required some deeper reflection on the meaning of solitude and renunciation and their role in spirituality to have true value. There is, on the one hand, something so beautiful the Swamiji, for example, from the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, South India, who renounced his wife and career to move to India to pursue a path of deep solitude and spiritual growth. He couldn’t speak a single word of the local dialect in India. At that time, nothing was written in English the way the language has become widespread these days. So this Swamiji befriended the birds, the monkeys and the trees of the jungle in Kerala. I think it is wonderful to have that kind of opportunity to be that close and connected to Mother Nature.
In our culture, both the western and Indian ones, as well as the European, and, I imagine, Middle Eastern and Latin American ones, we are inclined to feel great regard for those who walk a path of renunciation, by becoming Swamis or monks, priests or imams. Because we imagine that we could never live without the things these people have given up, it is natural to feel a lot of respect for renunciates. There, is however, at the same time, a darker side to renunciation of the traditional sense (as there is for all things in the dualistic world we inhabit).
A recent cover of Time magazine is titled “Why Being Pope Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.” The article covers the many scandals committed by religious leaders, many of whom are renunciates. In yoga, there exist siddhis, or special spiritual powers, that practitioners develop after years of committed sadhana (spiritual practice). While people in the material realm find these siddhis to be an attractive reason to practice yoga, meditation and renunciation, true spiritual seekers actually abhor siddhis, as they are but mere distraction to the fulfillment of the goal of kaivalya (or absolute freedom or liberation from bondage). Power, after all, easily corrupts oneself and others.
It takes quite a bit of humility to really offer up praise to the divine, as our ego often wants nothing more than to be admired for its greatness. In reality, though, any good qualities we may possess, or actions we perform, come through us from a higher power – and it is to this higher power that we must offer any praise that comes our way. The same goes for insults – those, too, must be offered up to a divine force. In Gandhiji’s “Service Before Self,” he says,
He who feels neither happiness nor misery, he who rises above both happiness and misery has achieved Yoga. Yoga means absence of suffering, never feeling miserable. If anyone abuses us, we should lay the abuse at God’s feet. Likewise, if anyone praises us, the praise too, we should lay at His feet. He is a yogi who cultivates such a state of mind and feels himself as light as a flower.
Only that person who has reduced himself to a cipher, has completely shed his egoism, can claim to be a yogi. He alone may be said to be such a person who has dedicated his all to God.
I heard a story this weekend about such a person, named Ammachi (meaning ‘darling mother’). Ammachi is a hugging saint from Kerala who has embraced over 26 million people around the world. She is a spiritual teacher to many, including one young male disciple who has traveled with her for the past few years of his life. He was so attached to Ammachi that he could never leave her side and to the extent that he was actually approaching a mental breakdown. Instead of desiring his unquestioning devotion (as many spiritual masters do from their disciples), she commanded him to go away from her, to lessen the grip of his attachment.
Devotion to a guru is a common aspect of the spiritual journey, as the guidance of a realized master is so invaluable for those starting out. While attachment is, in a subtle way, quite different from true love (mostly in its intention of looking out for own’s own desires), devotion to a master like Ammachi is of great benefit to the devotee. I heard another amazing story about the power of devotion from Somikbhai’s father after his Stanford graduation yesterday afternoon:
One guru had committed every sin known to man. One of his devotees, however, continued to worship him as God despite the clear shortcomings of the teacher. The devotee did not engage in the same kinds of activities as his guru, but his deep devotion to this teacher caused him to enter heaven. The guru, on the other hand, went to hell. The disciple was so upset that his teacher could not be found in heaven that he actually asked to go to hell to be with him! In the Mahabharata, Lord Vishnu had a conference with some other deity, who helped him decide that the most appropriate course of action would be to send the guru to heaven, by the merits of his disciple. Devotion, ultimately, then, is for the salvation of the student, not the teacher. The teacher went to heaven on the basis of the hard work of his devotee. Solitude, in this sense, then means that we are each responsible for our own salvation – no teacher can do the work for us, though they can guide us along a good path.
In my own life, I had an amazing experience of solitude this weekend when I went with a dear friend of mine on an 8-mile hike to Ammachi’s ashram here in the hills of Castro Valley, California. Though we walked there together, we were in many ways, very much alone. We spoke very little on the journey. Many of the pathways did not allow for more than one person to walk and I had very heavy bags to carry with me, which caused me to move more slowly than my friend. I also purposely tried to walk slowly, knowing that the speed at which I went would enable me to endure the long uphill journey in the rising sun. My friend moved very fast and later shared how he had actually wanted to turn around and go back home halfway through! I would have never known this, as on the outside, it appeared that he was motivated enough for the both of us to walk! Had we spoken with one another, it would have been very easy to voice the complaints and discomforts we felt along the path. The challenges of the journey, particularly the intensity of the wind as we moved up the hill in the increasingly hot sun, allowed us a great opportunity instead for inner growth and transformation. It was a real purification of sorts, guided by silence and stillness in motion.
We went without any expectation that we would even get to see Ammachi, but when we arrived and shared with one lady that we had walked there, she decided to, instead of turning us away (due to a retreat that was going on), actually allow us to receive Ammachi as she entered the ashram! It was a beautiful experience. She distinctly made eye contact with both of us, as if she had known we had come a long way to catch this brief but meaningful glimpse of her. After we met her, the opportunity to simply sit and meditate after walking all those miles was something I appreciated much more than usual.
Everything in nature there was shining with this special spiritual spark. The roses in Ammachi’s rose garden smelled like the fragrances people purchase in luxury department stores. There were two perfectly snow-white colored swans who came so close to us to grace us with our presence. God is everywhere and the next thing I knew it, this divine presence came in the form of the most breathtaking pond, complete with pristine lily pads and the most gorgeous white lotus flowers.
That there were lotuses present at the ashram’s pond was very fitting. In Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi,” he writes:
“The lotus flower is an ancient divine symbol in India; its unfolding petals suggest the expansion of the soul; the growth of its pure beauty from the mud of its origin holds a benign spiritual promise.”
Ammachi’s own life was filled with mud at the beginning: she grew up as a very poor girl in the lowest caste of a fisherman village in Kerala. Her brother threatened to kill her with a knife when she refused to marry (due to her intense devotion to God). Her family abused her in many other ways as well. And yet, through her steadfast bhakti (Sanskrit word for devotion), Ammachi was able to withstand these abuses and purely serve many others who came to her for a simple embrace. Ever since she was 21 years old, everywhere she goes, she will attract large crowds of people who yearn for that tender maternal embrace. She can hug people for up to 20 hours straight, without even going to the bathroom or taking a break to eat or sleep. Many people wish to give her money as an offering of gratitude for her blessings, which she has poured into incredible humanitarian projects, including the creation of many schools, universities, hospitals, orphanages, disaster relief efforts and much, much more.
The experience of walking to Ammachi’s ashram reminded me of how even the word “alone” contains the words “all” and “one” – the real opportunity that solitude provided was the chance to perceive and experience our oneness and connectedness with ourselves, with the trees, one another, the birds and animals and really all beings and things. Ammachi helps us recognize this through her unconditional love and compassion toward all who come into her presence, despite all they might have done to harm others and themselves during there lives.
There is a universe outside of us, as well as one within – it is only through understanding the microcosm inside us that we can come to know the wide, vast world without. We are, after all, the living composite of the universe. We are part flower, part shark and tiger, ape, tree, cloud, dog, part bird. We have it all within. Any characteristic that we see in nature, we can also find within ourselves.
There is really an irony in contemplating solitude – as it is through being alone that we can come to feel and know our true, eternal togetherness. To me, the real fallacy, then, is to believe that solitude equals separation. The basis of all the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, after all, is the fundamental unity and interconnectedness we share with all. The very essence of a religious or spiritual master is the great love and compassion they embody (as Ammachi does) – this essence is predicated on knowing another’s joys and sorrows as one’s own, dissolving the lives of separation that create so much violence and discord in our world.
I really enjoyed Somikbhai’s father’s reflection on Wednesday about renunciation. He was chairperson of the annual Devi (goddess) Puja (worship/celebration) and decided that instead of the usual merrymaking that goes on during this holiday, to put people in his community into roles that required them to go out into the community, to connect with the joys and sorrows of someone in the slums. Everyone was really against it at first, but then ended up enjoying spending time amongst the underprivileged even more than the usual merrymaking of this time of year.
In this time of Kali Yug (known as the age of darkness in many spiritual traditions, including that of Yoga), I believe that there is a real need for this kind of spirituality and compassion in action. As Ammachi often says,
“If it is the karma of someone to suffer, is it not your dharma (duty) to help them?”
The real meaning of renunciation in these days, I believe, is not so much to isolate oneself in a cave as much as it is to use the opportunity of solitude to reconnect with oneself to be of deeper and more pure service to others. To render acts of service as offerings of devotion to any form of a higher power one feels most comfortable acknowledging. Renunciation then is not so much about giving up one’s home or family as it is about renouncing the attitude of greed, fear, hatred and jealousy, as well as selfish attachment towards one’s home, family and material possessions. Reading the texts of spiritual and religious books (as is often done during religious and other holidays) is good, but as Swami Sivananda once said,
“An ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory.”
We live in an interconnected world and I really believe that the challenging nature of these times call upon us all to extend our concept of family to include the whole world as our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. To dispel, through solitude, the false notion of separation and feel the joys and sorrows of others as our own is, to me, the highest form of renunciation.