Live Well, to Love Well

Jignasu Madhumati, Australia. Impressions from satsang with Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Mangrove Mountain, Australia, April 2006

What is an ashram?

The theme was ‘spontaneous ashram living’. Swamiji began by asking what is an ashram? The ashram is a concept, an idea, a vision. The literal meaning is a place of work. In an ashram work is done to better oneself and to make an inner connection. The first stage in life is learning, going to school, where the heart and spirit are subdued and the mind predominates. The second stage is involvement with work, where we learn to deal with fears, inner conflicts and difficulties. Our associations are with the outer world. The third stage is retiring, drawing inwards, becoming self-contained and self-aware. The ashram has evolved to meet this need to connect with the inner self or spirit, and has a number of components.

1. Mantra

The first component of the ashram is mantra. Spirit is not something hazy that exists inside us and departs when we die. Spirit is absolute consciousness. We connect with absolute consciousness by connecting with absolute energy. The physical body is compressed energy. Mantra is a component of the ashram because it is non-physical. The vibration affects the energy that comprises our body. Mantra is a sound vibration, a collection of frequencies that alter the consciousness and affects us on every level – physical, mental, emotional and so on. Mantra bypasses rationality.

When our consciousness gets ‘kinks’, when we have mood swings, our energy flow is affected. When this happens repeatedly, an energy pattern is created which attracts the same situation. A habit or pattern becomes an obsession, and then becomes our character – what we are. Mantras demagnetise us. They clean our consciousness, allowing us to transcend these patterns of behaviour. Connecting with consciousness is not escaping from or avoiding difficulties. It is going beyond them, growing out of them. Each day and each time has a specific vibration. For example, Friday is Devi day, and generally in our ashrams we chant Saundarya Lahari on Fridays. Mantra is a powerful tool for inducing altered states of consciousness. It prepares our consciousness for the growth of positivity. Mantras are personal discovery.

Both Swami Sivananda and Swami Satyananda have given us a mantra sadhana: 11 rounds of Mahamrityunjaya mantra, 11 rounds of Gayatri mantra and three rounds of Durga Path (32 names of Durga). Mahamrityunjaya mantra gives healing, energy, power, immunity and strength. It has hard sounds. The rishis say it removes tamas, and that illness comes when we lose joy and the will to live. Gayatri mantra has soft sounds, and it gives wisdom, learning, perception, understanding, a connection with our inner self. It facilitates the process of learning, seeing new perspectives. Durga Path has hard sounds, and it will remove and overcome distress in life.

This sadhana will improve all our associations and relationships. Swamiji urged everyone to do it every day, on first waking, for ten minutes, before getting out of bed or even going to the toilet! The mind is most receptive on first waking, before we get involved with the day’s activities. We should practise it, without dwelling on what was or was not experienced.

2. Yoga

The second component of the ashram is yoga. Yoga has four stages. The first stage is yoga practice. This is where there is a fleeting, temporary association with the practices, where we turn to yoga to fulfil our needs, such as a sore back, and then leave it once we are better.

The second stage is yoga sadhana, where there is an effort to improve oneself. Quite a few people are at this stage. Here we connect with the aspirations of yoga, not our own mental aspirations. For those who are intellectual, the aim is to develop viveka – discrimination, understanding; for those who are psychic, the aim is to develop the drashta (witness); for those who are emotional, the aim is to focus and purify the emotions; and for those who are earthy, dynamic and extroverted, the aim is to find balance in action. The aim will be different, depending on a person’s nature. There are also different methods and practices for each type of nature.

Yoga is a series of inner awakenings. Spiritual awakenings equal spiritual development. When we cut off from outside, our awareness becomes unified and there is complete vision. Right now our vision is unidirectional only, like the area illuminated by a torchlight. But a person with clear vision can see the whole picture. When we connect with the inner self, we are no longer focused on the individual but on the whole picture. This is higher consciousness.

The third stage is yoga lifestyle. Only a few people are at this stage, and it is quite an attainment. Here, sadhana naturally and spontaneously becomes lifestyle. Swamiji gave the example of two sockets, one representing samsara and the other samadhi. The plug represents us. We are usually connected to samsara, experiencing the life of the senses. Samsara is material life, the world of the five senses and the mind, where we just go from choice to choice, measuring our gain and loss. Material life is tamasic in nature. Happy tamas is the ‘haves’, while sad tamas is the ‘have-nots’.

Each socket has three holes, which are the three gunas – sattwa is neutral, while rajas and tamas are positive and negative, the opposite poles in material life. Happy sattwa is spiritual life, while sad sattwa is thinking about happy tamas! Spiritual life is connecting to the other socket, with a higher level of consciousness, with what is positive and virtuous. Swamiji said that he used to say everyone can achieve samadhi in this life. Now he says no, because the current conditions do not support it. Swamiji definitely did not dismiss samadhi, but emphasised that it is not our need. The only worthwhile aim is excellence, and current conditions do give us an opportunity to make an improvement in our life.

Yoga lifestyle happens when we know when to plug into the samsara plug and when to plug into the samadhi plug. When we come home from the office, we relax and unwind. There is a change in our consciousness when we move from one to the other. Going to the office is connecting to the samsara plug, and coming home and letting go of our conditionings, etc. is connecting to the samadhi plug. Unplugging from samsara to samadhi happens naturally. We need to know when to stop and pull back, and when to march forward in life. It is like the road sign: ‘Stop, revive, survive’. We need to know when it is necessary to stop, and revive with yoga, in order to survive.

The fourth stage is yoga culture. Sanskrit defines culture as the harmonious, perfect expression of human creativity at all levels. This stage arises when we adhere to and live the ten yamas and niyamas. Swamiji advised us to ask ourselves where we are in relation to these four stages of yoga.

3. Seva

The third component of the ashram is seva. Seva does not mean service. Seva means ‘to be with the Self’, from the roots saha-eva, or to be with ‘That, which we can define as God, human nature, consciousness etc. Seva is a natural expression of positive, harmonious, creative energy. It is an outcome of connection with the Self. When we move towards this, we have to surrender to the Self, to let go of our associations, expectations, desires, likes and dislikes. Seva is developed through karma yoga. Purity of heart is developed through bhakti yoga, and seva purifies the heart.

Swami Sivananda gave us the eight limbs of practical yoga: serve, love, give, purify, be good, do good, meditate and realise. This yoga is an expression of what has been attained from our attempt at Patanjali’s yoga. Swami Sivananda’s practical yoga relates to the heart, and starts where Patanjali’s yoga, which relates to the head, stops.

Seva is an outcome of karma yoga, which has three aspects: (i) participation – with one-pointedness, and head, heart and hands integrated; (ii) perfection – an expression of creativity, always improving the way we do things; (iii) no expectation – Ishwara pranidhana, the last niyama of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, ‘Thy will be done’. The first stage of surrender is when we perform the action for guru or God or other humans in need. The attitude is ‘I am not the enjoyer,’ ‘I am not the doer,’ ‘I am the medium for the expression of destiny, of God’s will.’ When these three aspects become part of every action, life becomes a sadhana. Seva is the perfect expression and involvement of an evolved consciousness. Seva is balance of head, heart and hands. Seva means to be with That.

In Swami Sivananda’s yoga, the first stage is ‘Serve’. ‘Love’ is the second stage. Swamiji gave Rikhia as an example, where first of all Sivananda Math built houses for the people, and caring for the children as their own came eight years later. ‘Give’ is the third stage, and this means sacrifice. We can ask ourselves how much money we earn and what we spend it on? How much is for us and how much for others? Swamiji urged us again – every time we buy clothes or some other item for our children, to also buy one for someone else’s child who needs it.

Swami Satyananda is the living embodiment of Swami Sivananda’s vision. He has had two roles – yoga teacher, and the broader vision that we see in Rikhia where he is working for the upliftment of all, transforming people’s lives. Why did Swami Satyananda develop Swami Sivananda’s idea to this level, and not remain only a yoga teacher like so many others? Because he was attuned to his guru. In order to spread light, we need to either become a light, or become a mirror and reflect the light. Becoming a light is too remote for us, but we can definitely become a mirror. To do this, we need to purify ourselves. The disciple needs to attune with the guru, the devotee with divinity, the individual with the cosmos.

The Bhagavad Gita teaches us that karma yoga gives immunity from the effects of karmas. The karmas are offered to someone else, not performed for ‘me’, so the results are not accrued. Seva is selfless action, where ‘I’ am not the centre. Karma is self-oriented action, where ‘I’ am the centre. Swami Sivananda told Swami Satyananda that if he worked at home, it would be for himself, but if he worked in the ashram, it would not be for himself and so he would not accrue the results of his karmas. Karma and awareness of karma is the evolutionary process.

In the Bhagavad Gita, yoga is defined as achieving balance in the midst of opposites, as having an equal vision, where each one is recognised as complete and on a path of evolution. Karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga occur together, they are not separate processes. The thought “I am doing karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga” will be a powerful tool for growth.

4. Swadhyaya and discipline

Swadhyaya and discipline are other important components of the ashram. Swadhyaya, self-study, is a process of jnana yoga, the yoga of attainment of self-knowledge. The SWAN (strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs) meditation is an important process here, as is also the spiritual diary. These reflect the changes in our mind and consciousness.

Discipline begins with a routine. The ashram routine provides for optimum relaxation and optimum activity. We can take it home with us. Regular meal times and not eating between meals avoid overstraining the digestive system. In yoga, good digestion and falling asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow are indicators of good health.

In the ashram there are two groups of people. One is the dedicated, committed group who work to keep the ashram going. For them, the ashram is not a community. The second group come to enjoy the ashram. They require openness and receptivity, and see the ashram as a ‘community’. But the ashram is not a community. In spiritual life, we are lions – each one needs his own den, to be independent, to have his own job. Spiritual communities fail, and always will fail.

For the first group, a more intense discipline is required, and the reason is subtle. They put their energy into the ashram, build it up and make it what it is. Many people think that when they take sannyasa their work is over. This is wrong! In Rikhia, everyone is busy all day. The connection to that vision and energy can be made in other ashrams too. It is the people and their focus and commitment, not the place, that is important.

Swami Satyananda’s conviction about the ashram concept and vision is an example for us. When he left Ganga Darshan, he would not take a cent from the ashram. His attitude was, “Many people have worked to build it up for a specific purpose, not for my enjoyment.” The ashram is not a place to retire to, not a place where people stay. The ashram is a school. We come and learn and then we are put out. Opportunities are given in the ashram – take them. Swami Satyananda used to say that luck is making good use of opportunities.

Live well, to love well

Swamiji emphasised the need to make an effort to adopt and incorporate a yogic lifestyle. While the discussion was about the ashram, it showed the need for all of us to review our lifestyle and improve it, adapt it, and incorporate yogic aspects into it. Swamiji said, “You have found the path, now walk on it.” Many people find the road, then stop and stand beside it, looking at it, saying “Oh, how happy I am I have found the road!” They don’t move, they just stand there. We should try to follow the road as far as we can.

‘Live well, to love well’ was Swamiji’s message. We all want friendship, recognition and love, but we try to seek love, and we try to give love, without first knowing how to live. It is necessary to learn to live first, then love will become an experience that arises within us naturally. We don’t need to seek it or give it. We have to learn to live well and to manage ourselves, and discipline is the key. We live according to our whims, not according to the call of destiny. Right now, human destiny is love, as Swami Satyananda has said. Maybe later when we’ve reached that, another destiny will unfold.

Swamiji told us to see our life and evolution as a softening process. Before a potato is cooked, it is hard. When cooked, it becomes softer and softer. From being conditioned and mean, we become deconditioned and open. But we should not be too soft – it is softness with clarity, energy, strength, conviction and confidence. Swamiji concluded with the reminder that we are never alone. An inner connection is a greater support than any other person. When this understanding or glimpse comes, it will change our life, and auspicious, virtuous, creative, positive qualities will manifest.