“Is an Ashram For Me?” by Swami Ritavan Bharati (Parts 1 – 5)
“Is an Ashram For Me?” by Swami Ritavan Bharati (Parts 1 – 5)
Ashram as gurukulam invites adhikarin-students, those on the path of yoga to stay and study under disciplines and guidance of a spiritual preceptor.
In the training of yoga, an emotionally balanced personality is developed through the application of a number of disciplines and meditative practices. An ashram or gurukulam is a place where disciples live under guidance, with a number of methods employed by the Spiritual Guide for self-transformation of the disciple. With the choice and commitment made to live an ashram lifestyle as a disciple, one accepts the three pillars of spirituality that is nurtured in the ashram. These three pillars are: discipline, service, practice, which can be described as follows.
Discipline, or training one’s inclination, tendencies, and habits, may include a number of ashram guidelines as well as personal practices. Examples of these are: strict daily schedule, prayaschitta or self-observation and self-examination, emotional purification and pacification, respect and obedience in accepting the spiritual guide’s teachings and criticisms. The ashram lifestyle is also meant to reduce involvement in experiences and relationships that are not conducive to spiritual progress. Through constant self-observation one is reminded that equanimity in all situations is the primary prerequisite for ashram living.
The second pillar is service, ashram-seva, and known as karma yoga. This means that all one’s actions and energies are given altruistically for whatever is to be done. Here one learns to use time, remain attentive, and maintains skillfulness in what one is doing. It also means to carry an attitude of “not-mine”, for the fruits of the actions are offered for the benefit of the ashram, teacher, and teachings. One maintains a mindfulness of one’s goal and channels all one’s emotions, energies and behavior into fulfilling one’s task and surrendering the fruits.
The third pillar is the spiritual practice that supports self purification, and self-liberation. The purification of personality is to free oneself from the habit patterns or samskaras as the latent tendencies that are mainly unconscious and are tendencies to which one is attached and with which one identifies thus remaining confused and ignorant. These come in the three categories of purifications of mind, communication, and behavior. Spiritual training involves all three levels of personality: physiological, psychological, and philosophical. The training in an ashram prepares one for going forth into the relationships, involvements, and to assume the responsibilities one has with a sense of self-discovery and self-fulfillment. Through the inner strength of sankalpa or self-determination, a contentment (santosha) marks a spiritual maturity from which one is not distracted, and no longer influenced by confusing reactions or conflicts.
Thus, the ashram life, as chosen by a few rare persons, is a means of nurturing attitudes and behaviors to awaken the realization of purposeful living, and thereby effortlessly transforming oneself as a moral beacon of light for others through the essence of grace that is love.
In the first article last month, Swami Veda gave the ashramites, in the early years of his ashram at The Meditation Center in Minneapolis, the theme of ashram living in the attitudes and behaviors necessary in developing an ashram community. In this second article, Swami Veda addressed the ashramites of Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama (SRSG), 25 years later, with the same intensity of care, patience and compassion. The themes of discipline, practice and service are also present in his talk in 2004, only in a subtler manner. Again, read with the reflective attitude remembering our theme: Is an Ashram for me?
The word “ashrama” means a place of “labor all round”. A place of making intensive effort, and a means “all over”, “in every way”, “completely”. Shrama, as labor, or intensive effort, means one who labors in an ashram; one who makes intense effort is known as an ashrama. It is a different kind of labor than the labor you skillfully perform each day in your profession. In the world outside, you labor for others, and in the world of an ashram you labor to know your Self.
One’s life in an ashram should be a time of churning, churning, churning and changing, churning and changing. It should be a time of a relaxed intentness. When I am speaking to you in this way, do I seem concentrated? But you know I’m that relaxed while performing my actions. That’s what I want to teach you, intentional relaxation. Relaxed intentness. This should be a goal, very deep spiritual goal for which one is in an ashram.
Time is precious. By how many months or years have you lengthened your lifespan while you were in the ashram by lengthening your breath? Has your breathing changed becoming longer, deeper, smoother, longer exhalations, and without a pause or break. Measure your time in the ashram in this way.
If someone walked in here and did something that makes you angry, would you be any less angry than you were before you left home? When you go back home from here will you be any less angry at such provocations? If you hear disappointing news, will you be any less disturbed?
You have to keep on, keep on, keep on and reduce your karmic debt. Reduce the influence of those vasana, the habit patterns you unconsciously carry with you. Do you see how I walk about? Do I seem burdened or troubled as I perform my duties and carry my responsibilities? And you can change your latent habits as well, so begin NOW. How? Not by sitting idle in a beautiful, comfortable ashram, but by engaging in ashram life constantly practicing, and measuring your self-awareness with each challenging thought and emotion.
If you are sitting here with the attitude of enjoying a seaside holiday, why are you in an ashram? You have a precious two or three weeks; therefore, create something with that time, give new impressions to your mind. Your time in an ashram should be taken to relax. Relax? Yes, intentional relaxation by doing the relaxation practices again and again. Don’t waste time. At home you say, I don’t have time to meditate”, and you say, “Oh, Swamiji, I would so like to come to quiet ashram and meditate.” So you come to the ashram and you still have the habit of not using that time. What should you do? Make use of your time in the ashram to do your relaxation practices, your japa, your meditation, and give some service to the ashram.
We are missing the discipline of an ashram, and I see people just sitting idle, gossiping, or daydreaming. Remember, “ashrama”, means labor all around, complete, internal laboring, changing, churning and changing and examining oneself. Did I add two weeks more to my life by reducing my level of tension? Did I add two more weeks to my life by changing my breathing?
Remember the first sutra of the Yoga Sutras. Everybody talks of yoga, yoga, yoga, but where is “yoga anushasanam”, the discipline of yoga. “Atha yoga anushasanam”–“Now the discipline of yoga,” is the very first sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In the ashram you begin now (atha) with the discipline of yoga. Each student should wake up on time. Otherwise stay in a hotel. I’m usually not this harsh, but I think we have to change the attitudes in this ashram. And the same with the sleeping time. Promptly leave the bed, and promptly enter the bed keeping the sentiment of “atma-tattvava-lokanam”, “I am Atman.”
Sadhana is not just sitting down and turning rosary beads. Sadhana is making change in the small matters such as becoming more regular with your daily schedule, with your meditation. Don’t waste time with a multitude of idle pursuits.
Be ambitious, and build into your discipline a period of “sthala sanyasya.” No stepping out of the ashram for certain periods. Just cut-off, and forget the world outside the ashram. Sthala sanyasya begins with “sthala” meaning a space, place, or area; and “sanyasya” means renunciation. The renunciation of all other spaces except the one to which you are confining yourself. As people start their ashram stay, let them taste these disciplines. What is that sutra? “Atha yoga anushasanam,” meaning self-discipline to reveal the Self.
Be a conqueror. Don’t be defeated by your desires, restlessness, by your angers, by your random speech. Be a conqueror. Don’t be a slave to your urges. That is power yoga. A true practitioner of yoga aspires to conquer his anger, conquer his desires, conquer his habit of gossip and random speech. And next, is to become the masters of one’s emotions, able to replace one’s resistances with an even flowing baseline emotion. That is the discipline of yoga, beginning with self-examination, self-purification, self-pacification while in the ashram.
My Guru would tell me, “Try to learn to be a little bit harsher, to be a little bit more of a disciplinarian”, but it doesn’t come easily to me. So my principle is, “What doesn’t come easily to you and you don’t want to do, go do it.” In my life, whatever progress I have made it has been made by pushing myself to do things I don’t like and conquer my resistance till I become neutral. You don’t have to like it, but you should become neutral. This attempt at enforcing some kind of a discipline is also part of my sadhana and the way my Master wants me to be, something I don’t want to do, I don’t like doing, but I have to learn to do, if I want “your” spiritual progress.
So you are here in Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama. I think you find this place a little too relaxed, too comfortable, too luxurious. Sometimes I find because I am too relaxed in these matters, there is more of a holiday or resort attitude than an ashrama attitude. But if it’s a holiday let it be a spiritual holiday. It should be a time for re-creating oneself. Then when you leave after three years, or three months, or three weeks or three days, people see you and say you are a different person. And you can accomplish this in the ashram through karma yoga, silence, meditation, svadhyaya and service. Each of you practice japa, and observe silence to sustain this ashram as an oasis of peace.
May your prayers be answered satisfying both God and Guru. Welcome to the ashram.
Relationships and Communication: Are You Ready?
The flower-children of the USA in the 60’s were all about relationships and communication. Freedom of speech and equal rights were all the rage; and at times, became “out-rage”. Were such overt actions justified communication? Let us examine our ashram training for an answer.
In this third of a series of articles, we look at the ashram as a laboratory for life; applying the teachings of yoga to train the mind to be the instrument for the soul-atman.
Our theme is relationships and communication: What are the relationships in an ashram? And how will ashram training and spiritual practices help one understand their relationships and to communicate more effectively?
When Gurudev came to the West and set up an ashram for his mission, he first taught yoga as the science of regulating, “yogah chitta vritti nirodhah,” YS I:3, emphasizing yoga is the control of the mind’s thoughts – vrttis.
He taught, “To regulate means ‘to find your own capacity.’ It is better to regulate instead of going to the extremes of suppressing or overdoing. When you regulate all your appetites, and you are no longer a slave to your appetites, that is control.” You become the master of that thing which controls your life – your buddhi, the faculty of discrimination and intention. Gurudev would humorously say to the ashramites that all of you are bhogis and not yogis. Then he would explain, seeking temporary pleasures (preyas) makes you a bhogi. This is the difference between a yogi and a bhogi. Seeking temporary pleasures becomes a habit, and when you are a bhogi, soon you will becomes rogi. Rogi means “diseased,” you become a “sick” person.
When Swami Veda gathered his first groups of ashramites, these hippies of the 60’s wanted to “turn-on” with yoga. Swamiji’s teaching gently guided the ashramites to train their inclinations through the ashram rules and disciplines. This subtle challenge became a very different and difficult “test” for these “free-thinking” ashram residents. He began to explain an underlying spiritual principle: “discipline makes disciples” – students worthy to study yoga and who can change their mind’s habits.
Swami Veda would joke, you all belong to the 4-H Club: “head, hands, heart, and hormones”. This “jumble” of energy has no direction because you do not know the source. He emphasized that yoga was a method of becoming “antara-mukha” – inward looking, becoming mindful and self-observant. The teaching of the yoga sutras they were taught to apply these principles to training their mind’s thinking and emotional habits.
Swami Veda introduced the meaning of indriya-gupti, training of the senses – active and cognitive senses, the importers and exporters of perceptions for the mind. These guidelines helped the ashramites to develop a process of introspection, to understand the difference between preyas and shreyas, sense gratification and fulfilling desires from an interior source of fullness.
He would say: “Frittering with the hands, fiddling with the toes is a waste of energy. Use these conscious relaxation exercises to conserve your energy, then you will be able to center and guide your energy in the right direction.” He taught a series of systematic and progressive subtle-body practices known as pratyahara, the beginning steps of meditation.
The same with “speech”, for a word spoken is power lost until it is properly controlled, and “ripe” with pleasant and truthful sentiments. Swamiji would say, “Gather your power, strengthen it slowly, practice it silently, not becoming proud or advertising your newly found powers of stillness, silence, compassion and understanding. Enjoy what you have received instead of living with regrets, disappointments, fears and blaming others for your mistakes and ignorance.”
Along with meditation as a method, the ashramites learned meditation in action. You learn to gather yourself to your self, your senses, your thinking, and look at the source of your thoughts. Do not convert that thought to the kinetic energy of words and sounds, rather you return that thought to its source, its origin that generates the mind-energy. Learn to hold it, assimilate it, and watch how your capacity increases. He taught the ashramites to apply this newly found energy to their seva. In this way, they would work all day and most of the night. They began to understand the art skill in action, and the practice of yoga as gathering and directing one’s energy arising from a pure source within.
This energy, supported through the yoga practices, showed its fruits among the ashramites through cooperation and communication. The ashramites were told to measure their spiritual progress in their speech, and in their patience and resilience while they worked. Swamiji taught the ashramites, “Unless a sadhaka tests his patience, tolerance, and compassion in the negative stream of anger, hate, jealousy and ego, s/he cannot really evolve.”
Through silence and constant japa of their mantra, along with practicing indriya-gupti, these early ashramites slowly transformed their personalities, and upon leaving the ashram continued their lives in successful professions, and life-long relationships.
In our next article, we will explore the way ashramites were taught to honor all females as “Mother”, and to see relationships in the roles of “brother and sister, thereby, honoring the natural strengths of the female shakti.
n the previous three articles, a background was provided for ashram living through the 3 principles of practice, discipline as mental purification and selfless service, nish-kama karma.
In this fourth article, we look at relationships within our ashram as training lessons and opportunities to refine attitudes on the path of mental purification leading to moksha-liberation in this life.
Our ashram is a testing ground that uses relationships as a tool for self-awareness and mindfulness, and to break free from “non-conscious” mimicry. Outside the ashram, these habits have a greater tendency to morph into the unhappy and confused states of mind. Such unconscious reactions such as gossip, fault-finding, and complaining express unfulfilled ego-based desires. The unconscious habit becomes a vicious circle for when confronted, one again reacts with denial or justification thus burying the opportunity for mindful recognition of one’s mistakes or faults. Through practice and service, one begins to deepen self-observation and choose feelings or emotions independently rather than unconsciously through mirroring or mimicry. The tools of self-regulation taught in the ashram allow personality to be grounded in a purer, or natural state of mind based in the brahma-viharas: friendship compassion, joy, equanimity. Ashram life is an opportunity for practicing selflessness and sadhana. These tools of self-observation and self-examination lead to self-pacification, a more natural state of pleasant mindedness. Thus, relationships from a spiritual perspective serve both as tests and opportunities for growth and transformation.
Ashram living is also meant to introduce us to the inner guru. The inner guru is an actual force. We learn to tune into it through active participation in practice (abhyasa) and pacification (vairagya). This is why we are here, and why you have chosen to live in an ashram. Daily, we maintain this sankalpa to sow the seeds of pleasant mindedness, sattvic-pure attitudes, selfless actions, the let the fruits mature without judgement or expectation. It is not a time for planning for the future or hoping to meet someone for an emotional relationship. It is a precious opportunity for pure meditation, self-study, contemplation, and self-less service. Slowly the fruits of practice bring contentment and releases one from the “me” oriented habits. Daily participation through regular and frequent meditation strengthen shraddha – faith and confidence in the intuitive guidance of the “inner-guru”. Relationships in an ashram are as family, brother-sister, kalayana-mitra – noble friend. These treasured relationships allow the reflective nature of mind to transfer the states of truthfulness, sincerity and peace to each other rather than emotionally charged, ego-based desires seeking emotional satisfaction.
Ashramites are seekers of “svaatantrya”, relationships based in the self-governing ideals of the buddhi. This faculty of pure-intention reflects innate wisdom as the voice of one’s own atman. The spiritual Self, free of psychological conditionings and reactions from external stimuli, becomes the anchor for independent and willful decisions. For an ashramite, when emotional states are recognized, one learns to dive into the deeper sources of being using the resources of relaxation, breath awareness and self-observation (witness) and thereby smoothing the minds “wrinkles”. This more tranquil state and sattvic nature of the mind, opens the reflective nature of buddhi. The intuitive nature of the buddhi-mind carries an awakened capacity for empathy, compassion, patience and humility, with harmony and peaceful co-existence becoming the natural motivation within relationships. “Is an Ashram for me?” means one is prepared and committed to these guiding principles for self-transformation.
In the next article, we will explore the relationship of “inner guru” as guide reflected in the teacher-student relationship, and the role of the Ashram guide as a spiritual guide and kalyana maitr for the purpose of cultivating spiritual growth and self-transformation leading to freedom for all fears.
Fifth in a series of articles on ashram living.
Ashrams are dedicated to the lineage of yoga masters, teachers and spiritual guides that have shared the wisdom of spiritual life. These streams of traditions have continued for more than two thousand years nurturing dedicated seekers. The teachings, though perennial and timeless, are conducted in the language and terminology of the contemporary civilization, yet always imbued by the spirit as the source of wisdom.
The universality of a spiritual tradition makes the teachings resilient beyond the confines of individual beliefs, faiths, or opinions. The focus of an ashram is spiritual discovery and personality-formation cultivating spiritual growth through transmission and transformation in awakened higher states of consciousness.
Yoga ashrams apply the art and science of self-transformation as taught in various scriptures, oral tradition, and life experience through such methods that promote mindfulness, awareness, amity and compassion, acceptance and forgiveness.
Through daily practice, the habit patterns of mind are formed in regularity, frequency, duration, and intensity that establish a baseline for observing progress in daily meditation and other yoga practices. the sadhaka experiences the psycho-physiological rebalancing, healing, and transformation of personality, that can be measured in steadfastness of a peaceful mind.
Swami Rama would frequently remind us, “Acceptance and Forgiving are the very process of rejuvenation and growth. Living in the light of love and forgiveness will give you peace, and you will experience that sunshine that radiates within and all around you.”
Many people have fears in coming to an ashram. They feel their deficiencies and inadequacies will be unmasked. They may think that the spiritual guide is completely aware of and sees all their faults, dishonesty, greed and anger. In reality, an ashram is meant for one to come face to face with one’s self, and thereby fosters an attitude of discovery. A student enters ashram life with full conviction and trust, placing the entire book of one’s life before the teacher for scrutiny. That is always expected of a good student. If one can accept that he is ignorant, he can be lead by a competent teacher because such an aspirant is open to receiving higher knowledge. At that point the student has a strong desire to “Know Thyself;” and accepts the unique ashram life and relationship with the knowledge-bearer under the disciplines of ashram life.
The teachings of the spiritual guide offer no criticism, no condemnation, and emphasizes acceptance and forgiveness for whatever deeds might have been done. Random sentiments and negative emotions are brought forward from the subconscious mind through the selfless actions performed daily in the ashram along with constant self-observation and introspection. The ashramite slowly begins to feel the blessings of humility and self-restraint as well as the blessings of unconditional kindness and compassion. Many of those things one does not like about yourself will drop away as one creates a positive attitude. One sees and accepts the responsibility of one’s actions and behavior in relation to others as mirrors for understanding and growth.
“The most unselfish thing you can do in the world is to attain peace and stillness within yourself, for only what you possess, will you be able to distribute.” – Swami Veda.
While in the ashram, the spiritual seeker seeks a deeper self-understanding as a spiritual quest through the three pillars of practice, discipline and service. There is the difference between experiential knowledge and reading knowledge. The experiential lifestyle of an ashram in meant to apply the life lessons daily and slowly increase one’s capacity for self-understanding. There is a constant reminder, for in the greeting given to each is with bowed head and the word “namaste,” (I salute the divinity that is within you), recognizing that source of light and love.