Training the Disciple

Swami Sivamurti Saraswati, Greece

All the training that the guru gives us, as disciples, is to enable us to live life. Guru, as we know, literally means the one who removes darkness. The disciple is the one from whom the darkness is removed. According to yogic terminology, darkness means ignorance, and ignorance exists only in the mind. It is the mind which separates the disciple from the guru, and the foundation of the mind is the ego. It is the guru’s duty to find ways and means to whittle away at the disciple’s ego. It is the disciple’s duty to allow it to happen without shouting too much.

It is also the guru’s duty to discern the disciple’s karma and destiny, and to find a way that these can best be expressed and lived so that the karma can be exhausted and the inner light can shine through. Guru also means the light. The guru brings the light into our lives. The guru is the be–all and end–all of the spiritual aspirant’s life. Without the guru we cannot be successful in our spiritual endeavour. We must have his blessing. That is why in the scriptures the guru’s blessing is invoked before any sadhana or any study is commenced. Without the guru’s consent or agreement even years of practice will bear no fruit.

One of the ways the guru works on the disciple’s ego is ashram life. Swami Satyananda has said, “I don’t like ashrams, but they are absolutely necessary for a stage in our spiritual life because they provide the discipline required for training the mind.” In the early stages, beginners often find ashram life like a jungle, a type of survival of the fittest. One gets into constant conflict with responsibility, the areas of communication and the lines of authority. Both Paramahamsaji and Swami Niranjan are all in favour of this because, they say, that it is only in adverse circumstances that we can come to terms with our emotions, and so begin making the right choices to control our lives. Therefore, in this stage it is very natural to express the negative side of our nature. It is up to us how long this stage lasts. We can be beginners for one month or for years. When we were initiated, or when we came to the ashram, or how long we have been practising yoga, has nothing to do with it. It has to do with our point of view, and our point of view has to do with our awareness.

Stages of awareness

As we express the different angers, jealousies or resentments, we see others expressing them also. Initially we express our emotions. Next we start to realize that all this negativity is not helping us, or anyone else, and it is not helping the environment around us, and we try to put the brakes on its expression and swallow it. We may take a break, a walk, chant our mantra, or analyse the situation. There are many ways.

During the third stage, we start to see that we have this aspect in our nature, and yet still our guru accepts us. This is simply because the guru has not based his relationship with his disciple on that side of his nature. In the next stage, we realize what worms we are, and we start to wonder how the guru can bother to spend so much time trying to get us out of the situations we continuously find ourselves in.

The penultimate stage is when we have an inner recognition, not just an intellectual understanding, of the greatness of the guru. We start to understand the concept of grace.

In the final stage there comes an appreciation of that grace – a type of inner gratitude. Swami Niranjan explains this inner gratitude as being beyond words to express. When the aspirant has reached the inner gratitude stage he or she works willingly with the guru, not against, as before. Before that there was always a constant friction, but now there is understanding. You start to accept yourself more, and you start to realize that the guru accepts you, and always has. You realize you are a worm, and you want to become a butterfly. So you make a real effort, and your whole expression and demeanour change, and you start developing the four basic qualities that are essential for spiritual life.

Four pillars of sannyasa life

The first of these qualities is viveka, or discrimination, which is right understanding in any situation. This slows down your actions and speech as you try to differentiate between a right and a wrong way of looking at a situation, and you start to take responsibility for what is happening around you.

Simultaneously, you start to develop vairagya, or detachment. This gives a distance between you and whatever is happening around you, so that you cannot be so easily influenced or affected by another person or situation. You become calm and peaceful. The senses, which were running amok before, suddenly seem to have brakes on them. You are not so interested in the worldly activities which attracted you before. At the same time, the disciple doesn’t criticize these worldly or sensual activities because he or she knows that just a short while ago, they were attracted to them as well.

Detachment and discrimination develop endurance. Your faith deepens. And, naturally, you start to become more balanced. You should be able to stand in front of the guru and be praised, let him shout all sorts of abuse at you, and in all situations remain calm, with your senses restrained. You have the right understanding as to why, and how, this is happening. You are detached from it. You observe yourself in these extreme situations. We have to know this not only in theory, but to live it in practice. And we have to let the guru do this.

Now the guru may live thousands of miles away, so he may have other people doing this for him. It is the same situation, whether we are praised or abused by another person, we still have to maintain that balance, equilibrium, calmness and detachment, and allow the other person to let off steam. Maybe they are doing it with awareness, maybe not. It doesn’t really make any difference as far as we are concerned, because if we are looking at it from the spiritual point of view, we are testing ourselves in the situation. Can I handle this? Can I manage to accept this? From a worldly point of view it would be quite different. We would allow our intellect, or reason, to intervene, and get puffed up, or fight back. There are nine different types of pride, starting from physical pride right up to spiritual pride, and it is very difficult to shake these things off. When we are being praised, we like it. We dislike being abused. It is our liking and disliking that create the states of mental imbalance. Mental equilibrium implies not allowing ourselves to be affected by likes and dislikes. We may feel it, but it doesn’t affect us.

At the same time that all this purification is happening, the desire for God, the desire for liberation, grows more intensely. According to the scriptures and the teachings of the guru, these are the four pillars of sannyasa life, and without developing them we cannot go very far. But we have to get out of the jungle idea, into this idea, through the steps mentioned.

When we have managed this, we are ready to serve humanity. If we try and serve humanity before this, it is ego. When we serve humanity having accomplished this, then it is with humility. If we haven’t developed these qualities and we say we want to serve humanity, this is a subtle form of ego which is obvious to a person who is aware, and not at all obvious to a person who is unaware. A person without awareness thinks, “How nice this person is, he wants to serve humanity.” The spiritual aspirant knows differently. If we try to serve humanity, without developing these qualities first, we are putting ourselves, without realizing it, in the position of the guru. It shows an innate desire to be the guru, because the guru serves humanity. The disciple serves the guru. The guru whittles away the ego in order to prepare the disciple to serve humanity. Only then does he move you out to do your duty.

Categories of disciples

The guru will train the disciple according to their category. First, if we are babies in spiritual life, he will develop security in us. We will need to live physically near the guru for a period of time. Also, while we are teenagers it is necessary to be near the guru every now and then because we need a lot of reassurance, love and emotional expression. When we become adults in spiritual life and reach a certain maturity, we no longer live beside the guru physically, because separation is absolutely necessary so that we don’t become dependent on the guru. We like to be dependent on someone because that means that we can lean on them. And for a period of time we do need that, we need assurances and we need to be shown the way. But dependence, if misused, never gives us the chance to explore our own spiritual dimensions and awareness.

Once you have mastered obedience, what was a step on the ladder before can suddenly become a crutch that you don’t want to let go of. You don’t want to be free and you constantly lean on it, and are afraid of leaving it. You forget your original aims and allow this dependence to become a crutch. When the guru sees this, he picks up the crutch and throws it away. Then you wobble around a bit for a while, until your legs become firm and you can stand alone and connect with the guru within. He may no longer give you the everyday instructions which at that point were so easy to follow. Suddenly they are not there any more, and you are left on your own. You have to then test what you have learnt in life. All the training the guru gives us is to enable us to live life, and if he is always there beside us, physically telling us what to do and what not to do, we don’t live our own lives. So that is another stage in spiritual life. The guru sets us free – often forcibly. It is not that he has stopped caring for us, it is because he cares so deeply for us.

The attitudes of spiritual life are often in direct contradiction to what we have grown up with. We tend to think we should always be with the ones we love physically, but it is not the same in spiritual life. As soon as the spiritual child has developed the necessary qualities, he or she must stand on their own two feet. That doesn’t mean that the guru stops guiding the disciple, the guru never stops guiding or inspiring, but one starts to be more aware of him on the inner planes. We remember what he said to us in the past. In those moments of great difficulty, his words are very clear inside. He has already shown us the way. We have to remember what he has already taught us, and act accordingly.

In the beginning we learn to observe him physically and see how he acts, behaves or handles different situations. We hear him say many things, and we don’t necessarily understand them all, because we are babies or teenagers. But when we are adults, those words have great meaning for us wherever we are. Paramahamsaji has said that the disciple must not always depend on the guru. There has to be a time when we depend on the inner guru, to which the outer guru has directed us. Only at times of great inner conflict, when one simply cannot differentiate the course of dharma, should one then seek out the guru and ask him directly, as Arjuna asked Lord Krishna on the battlefield. The rest of the time we must be free to make our own choices.

So ashram training is essential because it helps to discipline and tame the mind, and it is one of the methods the guru uses. He will use many methods within that ashram training to work on the ego, some obvious and some not obvious at all, some very uplifting and inspiring, and some extremely painful. But whatever it is, the disciple needs to understand that this is being done for his or her benefit and growth. There is no other motive behind it.