Karma Yoga, Guru and Ashram Life

Swami Swayamjyoti Saraswati

The ashram is not a place where only saints and scholars reside. It is a place where the imperfect, realising their condition, seek to purify themselves so they can follow the spiritual path. For this reason they need the enlightened guidance and direction of a guru, one who is realised and has already mastered himself. Therefore, the ashram, though filled with a felt spiritual vibration, also contains elements of hypocrisy, dishonesty, jealousy, anger and greed. These elements are basically contained within each one of us, and we all project onto the world that which is in ourselves. Under guru we come to realise just how conditioned our responses are, and we begin to see how this has resulted from cultural invasion of our consciousness from a very early age.

The catalyst

You know the guru when your heart sings out at the sight of him and, despite your external relationship, your love glows deep at a look or a touch or a word. Living with him, you become healthy, alert and stable. You realise that superficially you are a complex of conditioned habits, emotional responses and a seemingly endless series of desires. You begin to see yourself as a collection of things and you quickly become aware of the fixed and often rigid way you interpret the events that go on around you. The catalyst in this is your guru, who by placing you in various situations and exposing you to an endless number of experiences, attacks your vulnerable places - your ego, your rational mind, and finally by consistently exposing you to your conditioning, he undermines your very concept of self.

This is the purpose of living in an ashram and is the reason why it is a sure way to spiritual life. To live spiritually is to live simply and as close as possible to the awareness of the moment. For most this is an impossible task, because avidya (ignorance) and ego lead on to the dance of maya (illusion) and the play of the mind. When we are intuitively aware of this, living in such a community is not an escape from the world, rather it is embarking upon a rigorous journey through the maze of the self in common with other seekers. Here, constant work and continual interaction with others is the key to self-discovery. Everyone and everything is your teacher and every day can be seen as an adventure with something new to learn. When you comprehend just why you seem to be continually moody and upset, sick of work or physically ill, then the learning begins in earnest.

Work and awareness

Life in the ashram is very intense. The working hours are long and diversions are few. Guru is constantly stimulating the aspirants by giving tasks which involve frequent changes of environment and interaction with different groups. He uses these situations to jolt us out of our apathy, stimulate greater awareness, and crack open a few of our fixed layers to let the light in. Often a lesson on practical karma yoga will be given. Visitors, students and swamis form huge chains carrying away rubble or co-operate in watering plants.

The trick is to be aware of the moment and to watch your thoughts and feelings as your mind plays games. 'The work is boring. That swami is being lazy. I wonder what is for breakfast?' These and other similar thoughts crowd one another in an attempt to capture your attention, and once they trap your awareness, the moment is frittered away and you are no longer there. When guru directs such karma yoga classes, the work is always simple - nothing for the mind to grab hold of or concentrate upon, and so it is up to each worker to keep a balance.

To work selflessly and consistently with conscious awareness is the practice of karma yoga and this is the ashramite's objective. The aim is to exhaust karma by developing the art of detachment, so that ultimately no karma will cling to you. This is a long process, as much dross has to be recognised and removed from the mind. The art of observing your total interaction with life has to be perfected, and in the course of practice, purification necessarily results from recognition and elimination of stress, pain and unhappiness.

It is only by working with constant awareness of your actions, feelings and thoughts, that you begin to understand what the ancient rishis meant by karma and the chain of samsara which binds you to your physical body. Yet karma yoga, as a practical working science, is left very much for the individual to discover by himself. The guru provides the initial stimulus, and even if you continue to be unaware of the objective, other situations and experiences will soon awaken this awareness within you.

The correct practice of karma yoga requires a greater awareness of both your external and internal existence, and necessitates a transition from blind participation to internal awareness of the flow of life. To remain calm and centred, you have to awaken the deep space within. This eventually becomes a source of refuge when you need to find yourself. All the time it is watching silently without participating.

Roles and masks

Greater awareness of all the facets of your existence will undoubtedly alert you to the reality of yourself, your masks and various roles. The actor watches all the plays, games and social posing. Interacting continuously with a kaleidoscope of personalities in the ashram, you very soon become aware of how your emotional reactions bring much mental stress, pain and unhappiness into your life. You learn to watch the age-old karmic game and, you begin to see where your flaws lie.

In the beginning you react in your accustomed manner, but with awareness. You don't suppress the natural feelings, but note their origin and their stimulus. This enables you to become less emotionally susceptible to old patterns. In this way, you don't stir your physiological processes so much, whereas before, bottled up anger, fear, frustration, jealousy, hatred and boredom could manifest in mental, emotional and physical tension leading to digestive problems, high blood pressure, migraine and tension headache, etc.

You learn to cease striving, for what are you out to achieve? Ego strength is not always a blessing. In fact, the greater the ego the harder the fall, as it inevitably has to happen under guru. Guru is not there to console your petty emotional quirks and whims. He does not uplift you when your ego is hungry for recognition. When you feel tired and depressed, your body aches and your mind spins its tales of trial and woe, you either succumb to your depressed energy or you rise up and fight the rut you are in. Negative thoughts and actions strengthen the negative impressions in your mind, and the vicious circle of desiring, enjoying and needing to repeat the experience is also apparent at this level.

Confronting the demon

Everyone goes through such experiences, especially during the early period of ashram life. To effectively control the demon in the mind, you must work hard, involve yourself in some physical activity, go to satsang and kirtan, and continue your sadhana regularly. A positive attitude is important. Swami Sivananda advocated this constantly in his lifetime. If you have thoughts of hatred, counter them with thoughts of love. If you are constantly critical of someone, learn to see the God in him.

The negative samskaras can be replaced by thinking of more positive and higher spiritual thoughts. Disillusioned, morbid thinking can lead you into a rut, but please don't fight the mind. Don't suppress your feelings; experience them and watch them without being overcome. The principle of karma yoga is usually vague to the newcomer of the ashram, but by providing other problems and situations for the mind, the guru is helping you temporarily to forget your own, until you are ready to face yourself.

Surrender to guru and to life

When the attitude is correct, no work should enslave you. Remember that by surrendering to guru, you are giving in to the energy of life. You are saying in effect that you recognise that you are not the body, but the atman. By relinquishing this little self, you cease to claim a separate and individual existence. A disciple has to believe in universal existence where actions are not his or hers, but come from the infinite and return there when the energy is spent. By developing greater willpower, perseverance and egoless-ness, you purify the mind and increasingly live in the present.

You learn not to be overly concerned with another's duty; look to your own first and let others be. Most people also have to be taught - sometimes a bitter lesson - to let the world go in its natural way. Each time you attempt to organise and manipulate the world, it is really to suit yourself. So you have to recognise your limitations and let go of this habit. Again, you should cease judging and categorising people. If someone is lazy or overtly negative with you, then watch the feeling and remember that you have also behaved like this in the past. It is a mistake to feel that you can always help others by tactful words. Let the world be, nature has all the answers.

Similarly, if there are sharp lessons to be taught, leave them to guru and remember the karmic law of cause and effect. This implies trust in guru and is essential for the disciple to develop, so that it becomes an automatic response. Open up to guru, listen and follow his directions fully, and learn from the testing conditions you are placed in. You should be alert when anger, jealousy and envy threaten to overwhelm you. Sing your heart out at kirtan, beat a pillow and find some cathartic release. Don't suppress your feelings, but also don't spill your negativity onto others. In the ashram, you should be aware of other people's vibrations and respect their personal space. You should allow everyone the opportunity to realise the karma behind their grief, sadness and unhappiness; don't smother it in a moment of pity but develop compassion and transcend your own automated responses.

Purification and evolution of consciousness

You will find that through karma yoga in the ashram, your attitude, views and relationship with life change as you become more clear and develop a greater awareness. You need to watch your ego, vain pride, lack of control over speech, impatience and lack of flexibility with others. When disharmony is created for the slightest reason, mental energy is scattered and a simple task is made more difficult. By developing sincerity, gentleness, cheerfulness and humility, you can create harmony in your relationships with others. You can learn to replace negative karma with positive karma, by generating impressions of peace, contentment, joy and love.

In the ashram you learn to love yourself, to accept your faults and weaknesses along with your abilities and talents. You accept responsibility for your thoughts, feelings and actions, and then set about discarding or changing the artificial divisions and conditioned fragments of yourself, Here, guru is always the key to your self-awakening. By prodding and demanding your strength, energy and faith, he shows you that he is always there, in every situation, forcing you to look at yourself, to face the inner dimension, to learn from your trials and errors.

Guru is deep like the night, wide as the ocean and soft and light as gossamer. He is at times unfathomable. His touch, his penetrating look, speak volumes. His criticism, his scorn, his dismissal are also aspects of his teaching, but his love is ever present and his truth is constant. You have to remember that he is in you also. You contain all of him that you love, respect and hope for. Stay with him for as long as you can even though ashram life might appear to be hell at times, it can often be heaven too, though usually it is purgatory; at the same time it is the most intense period of purification in your life.