Ashram: Compressed Life
“Do you want to know the meaning of life? You are sitting here wondering why we come in this world, in this body. I will tell you why, but can you handle it? You are here to get Moksha. You can have small, unimportant goals between, but the final goal is to get Moksha - nothing else.” (Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani – Ammaji).
Truth doesn’t come to an untruthful person.
The true meaning of life comes to us only when we learn to comprehend our selves and our basic human nature. Ramana Maharsi's one and only teaching was to ask ourselves again and again: “who am I?”. Ammaji emphasises how important Swahiyaya (self-knowledge) is by positioning it as the first of the Niyamas (personal preconditions for spiritual development) instead of Saucha or even before the Yamas (restraints as a preparation for spiritual life).
Those who discover the truth about themselves, and realise the meaning of life, are then faced with the task of finding ways of efficiently accomplishing this ultimate goal. Patanjali tells us that we can get moksha by practicing Kriya Yoga and explains that Kriya Yoga is: Tapas – Swadhiyaya - Iswara pranidhana => intense practice – self-knowledge – surrender to the higher. Thus, Kriya Yoga is considered a way of “baking” the consciousness, so that we can avoid the eternal wheel of karma (action-reaction) that keeps us bonded in the chain of human incarnation. But even if Moksha is not our goal, a ‘’baked’’ consciousness can help us tolerate life better and also help others to do the same.
There are many ways to work on ourselves and make our way to the higher levels of consciousness. Living an ethical worldly life, following the yamas/niyamas and maintaining regular spiritual practice is one way. Devotion and love (bhakti) to God or any higher idea/person is another way. Unpassionate Actions (seva) of love, can also change the state of mind of the doer. Every culture, every religion, every spiritual system, has different techniques and attitudes for guiding its followers towards a higher level. To serve these systems, a microcosm of the larger school of consciousness, (the worldly life) is constructed: monasteries, ashrams, communes. This concept is as old as our human history. A community of individuals, with the same aspirations, residing together with the purpose of making an intensive and concentrated effort towards achieving their goal.
All of these communes harbor the same basic structure. There are three essential requisites for a commune to function:
1. A central leader
3. Specific practices / system / routine.
Within the communal world of the ashram, these three ingredients are defined as:
2. Disciples (Chelas)
3. Specific program / practices (sandhana).
Guru and chela
Guru means “the one who dispels the darkness”. Chela means “devoted disciple”. A Guru is a realized soul that has as a dharma (duty) to lead others towards higher realization.
The Guru is responsible for sustaining and purifying the psyche of the Ashram. When the Guru is strong, the energy of the Ashram is strong, and when the energy is strong, all the negativity from those living there is absorbed and transformed.
The Ashram is the Guru.
The power of the Ashram depends 100% on the power of its Guru. A good location with strong electromagnetic channels, and building construction with well-thought-out architecture that encourages energy flow, are vital elements of a successful Ashram structure. However, without a strong leader providing a concentrated effort to absorb, direct and empower the psyche of the group, the sadhana (intense concentrated practice), of the group, will soon collapse.
Nowadays, as the practical aspects of life have become increasingly demanding, a jhiva mukti (liberated soul) may find it difficult to sustain its physical body for very long. Therefore, the Guru may leave the body or minimize his/her activities. For this reason, The Guru often gives authority to others to lead the ashram. When there is a defined paramparai (traditional yoga linage) the Guru always finds ways of passing the tradition to the disciples.
The Guru will always give us what we need.
However, living with one’s Guru can be a highly demanding experience. Chela means ‘’disciple’’, but also means “slave”. In the old days, the Chela’s behavior towards the Guru was identical to that of a slave to his master, and this was considered entirely acceptable. The chela was committed to the Guru and would obey every single instruction without questioning. While this may easily be termed ‘’slavery’’, the ultimate aim was for the Chela to learn to ‘’let go’’. Traditionally, the Chela would serve the Guru as an exchange for the teachings he was given, and in order to demonstrate his devotion and absolute trust; vital elements of the process. Nowadays, where money is the main method of exchange, the relationship between the Guru and the Chela is less demanding, but we should never discard the significance of this ultimate surrender. There is a danger in translating this ‘’surrender’’ as slavishness and remaining within the limitations of this definition.
Without an equal endeavor of Abhyasa (effort) and Vairagya (letting go) there is no Yoga (balance), hence there can be no development.
This profound trust must therefore exist in order to activate the teachings in the disciple’s system. Surrender is the wire connecting the Chela with the Guru. An unfaltering sense of trust is a vital element that many will struggle to obtain. Truth, for most of us, is limited to what our senses can perceive and what our logic can decipher. Trust without the logical process, releases access to the wiring which connects us with the higher. Patanjali calls it Ishwara Pranidhana: the wiring to the highest that opens through complete surrender.
The Guru Tatwa is activated by the Chela's Bhavana (attitude/ belief).
This wiring can be referred to as the “Guru Tatwa”. Guru Tatwa is the energy/spirit that connects the Guru and Chela, and when the Guru Tatwa is activated, there is no more need for the physical presence of the Guru. The Guru Tatwa is so powerful that it can “activate” the power of the disciple even when Guru is not physically present! Consequently, ‘’dry’’ information that has not been blessed by the Guru Tatwa, is weak, and cannot be effectively received and utilized by the Chela.
There is a beautiful story which illustrates precisely how powerful the Guru Tatwa is:
A student arrives late one day to his Guru and the Guru says: “well you are late, where have you been?” the student responds: “I live on the other side of the river. The river is flooding. I couldn’t bord at the usual bording place. There's no bridge and there's no boat- I couldn’t get here.” “Well,” says the Guru, “you are here now. How did you get here?” “I simply thought 'my Guru is my divine revelation; he is my God. I will simply meditate on my Guru and I’ll walk across the water. So I said 'Guru Guru Guru' and I am here.
'Well', thought the Guru 'I didn’t know this about myself. This bugged him, and he couldn’t get it out of his mind. When the student had finally gone, he thought “I’ve got to try this”. So he goes down to the river side and says “I, I, I”. He steps out onto the flood - and sinks like a stone.”
However, even for the dedicated Chela, getting what you need, and not what you want, cannot be a continuous process of bliss. It is very common that the Guru - Chela relationships are disturbed due to the tension of the disciple during the transformational stages. Psychology also speaks of the therapist-client relationship and refers to the period in which the client often hates his/her therapist. There is something in the human brain which reacts to change. Change is translated as ‘’death of the Ego’’. Every change is a small death for a part of us. Therefore change is a harmful threat for the Ego, and the Ego will inevitably react and fight against this. Furthermore, the Guru's job is not merely to change aspects of the Chela’s personality, but to change their entire consciousness.
It is for this precise reason that the dharma (responsibility) of the Disciple/Chela towards the Guru is incredibly challenging: He/she must recognize the Guru's aim through his actions. They must not confuse the pleasant for the good.
Avidya, one of the five kleshas (layers masking the truth), diverts us to Raga (attraction for the pleasant) and Dwesha (aversion for the unpleasant). A Guru cannot “bake” a consciousness that is still trapped within the illusions of pleasant/unpleasant.
Most of us are occupied with the “unchanging entity quirk” which makes us unable to see what is very close to us. That is why living with the Guru can make the Chela's efforts more challenging at times. It’s like when we meet our favorite movie star and we realize that they have a smell, or the pores of their skin are visible. Some need to have the perfect human being performing siddhis (miracles) in order to surrender and become their follower. This attitude makes the act of surrendering impossible as the disciple wastes his/her life waiting for the “perfect Guru”.
All the above are common situations that have been faced for thousands of years. The Shanti Mantra from the Krishna Yajurveda Taittiriya Upanishad is ideal to be chanted for the Guru-Chela relationship:
“Om Sahana Vavatu Sahanau Bhunaktu Sahaveeryam Karavavahai Tejas Vinavati Tamastuma vidhwishavahai Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi” (May He protect both of us. May He nourish both of us. May we both acquire the capacity (to study and understand the scriptures). May our study be brilliant. May we not argue with each other. Om peace, peace, peace.)
When the “wiring” of trust and surrender activates the Guru Tatwa, there are some common parts of the sandhana (practice) that must be realized and continuously reviewed and redefined for the sandhana to continue to be fresh and effective:
- Tuning with nature
One of the benefits of ashram life is that we have the great opportunity to “be present” and practice during the important parts of the day: Brahma Mahurta for quiet sitting, sun rise for Surya Namaskar (sun salutation) and Asanas, midday for Pranayama, sun set for mantra chanting or Jhana Yoga (concentration) techniques, evening for Satsang or Jnana Yoga practices.
This is all part of the abhyasa (concentrated regular practice) that Ammaji refers it as the three R's (Repetition/regularity/rhythm). Not only we are able to adopt a rhythm within our routine practice, but we also follow the rhythms of nature so that we can tune ourselves with the cosmos.
A very important practice that we should give importance is Brahma Mahurta - being present during God's time. Swami Gitananda talks about Brahma Mahurta:
“ (...)Amongst the many forms of productive 'quiet sitting', 'Gods Auspicious Hour', Brahma Mahurta is one of the most productive of all the early forms of mental development. 'Gods hour' is approximately one hour before sunrise. Hindus claim a special energy called Usha Shakti is present for the meditator between 3.45-4.45am (at the tropics). Scientists concurred that there is a 'feedback' from the Van Allen belt in the ionosphere that influences or impedes radio and TV Waves just before sunrise in our locale (....)
One advantage of this early morning meditation is that you are up before those who are polluting the mind plane with their conscious thoughts. The hour is usually quiet from the sounds of modern life and the air fresh and cool (...)
Observe God's hour as the most auspicious hour of the day (....)
Sit facing to the east. Breathe slowly and rhythmically but very quietly. Do not upset the peace. Hold your mind concentrated at the point between the eyebrows (...)”
- Karma Yoga: actions for purification.
The role of Karma Yoga is often distorted or underestimated. We sometimes forget that no matter how intensive our practice is, we are often held back and cannot progress because of our Karma. Ammaji says that we cannot delete our Karma but we can always mitigate it. Karma yoga is an action of purification or mitigation of our Karma. Karma means action. Every action has a reaction. The law of Karma implies that for each one of our actions, an equal reaction will come back to us at some point. This applies to both the pleasant and the unpleasant actions/reactions.
However, if we choose to perform positive acts without expecting the positive reaction, then we voluntary “break” the chain of action-reaction that would otherwise benefit us. So it is like “saving” a pleasure reaction instead of using it, so it can be used to “burn” a negative reaction. In other words we “burn” karma by acting and refusing the reaction.
It is also a method of Swadhiyaya (self-knowlegde). Ammaji often says: “when I want to see someone’s character I give them a job to do”, explaining that from one's actions, one's character is revealed.
Hatha Yoga Asanas can purify, exercise and prepare the body for concentration and meditation, but for the preparation and purification of the mind, Hatha Yoga alone might be insufficient, providing an artificial result. Karma Yoga purifies the mind, using real life and this is why it must be carried out alongside the Hatha Yoga Asanas.
Swami Satyananda, who uses Karma Yoga as the most important purification practice in his ashrams, says of Karma Yoga:
“Karma Yoga is a very important part of spiritual life. It is very important that the mind is prepared and the personality is rendered ready. Samskaras, positive and negative, must be exhausted, awareness must be extended to every level, dedication or consecration must be perfected, your attachments, illusions and infatuations must be spotted, scrutinized and analysed. All that is not possible without doing Karma Yoga.”
Another very important aspect of Karma Yoga, is the detached attitude towards every action. The true spirit of Karma yoga is action without expectation, identification and criticism. This means that the actions of the Karma Yogi do not include excuses, tensions, aggressiveness and antagonism. This is what makes Karma yoga different to a job or a project.
Perhaps the only philosophical and yogic explanation of karma yoga is the Bhagavad Gita. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna:
“You have the right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities and never be attached to not doing your duty.”
One can read in the teachings of Krishna this clear message: “You are not the doer”. No one is an individual doer. We are all instruments of the universe. Karma Yoga is our training, so we can experience this ultimate truth, and then apply it to everyday life, carrying out every action as instruments of the universe. This attitude towards life, leads to purification and liberation from the ego and every attachment.
Ashram food must be fresh, nutritious, and easily digestible. Complicated foods must be avoided. In order for the food to occupy the minimum amount of awareness in our minds, we should also make an effort to limit the variety and discipline the regularity of this intake. There is a myth that there must be a huge variety of options in our diet so we can receive all the nutrients and “survive”. If this was true, our ancestors would not have survived because they were eating the same food every day for their whole lives. We live in a time where we live to eat and many die from overeating. Too much variety in food consumes a great deal of our time and energy, and causes confusion to our system. For the common person this might be a nightmare to conform to, but for the spiritual aspirant, this discipline is essential so that he/she will be free from their attachment to food.
Swami Satyananda talks about ashram food:
“When we talk about diet, let us not talk about it in terms of puritanism. We must remember only one thing in this case; to be sure the body is capable of digesting all the food. I have discovered that instead of cooking the food in your stomach, it is best to cook it properly in the pan. Five or six condiments should be added during cooking to liberate the enzymes and chemicals which enhance digestion. The combination of heat, condiments and enzymes breaks down the food into smaller and more basic components, thus making it easier to digest.
The food we eat is not merely to satisfy our taste. Every food item has an essence in it, and in yoga we call this sattva. Sattva means the ultimate essence of food, but please do not mistake this for vitamins or minerals. Sattva is the more subtle form of food. When you eat for the sake of taste or enjoyment, instead of attaining the sattva you only get the gross things. When we overeat we create a burden for the digestive system, and when the digestive system is overburdened we are unable to extract the sattva from the food. Sattva is a substance which nourishes the thoughts and nervous system. When the thoughts are fed with sattva they are more refined and pure, and one is able to live in higher consciousness.
Over the years I have done a lot of work on food because I run ashrams where I have to manage all the affairs in relation to money, labor and the spiritual welfare of the ashram inmates. I have evolved two wonderful foods which suit everybody. One is for those who like rice and the other is for those who prefer wheat. You either cook the rice with dal (pulses such as lentils), vegetables and a few condiments, or you pound the wheat, add all the same ingredients to that and cook it well. I call this integrated kichari. You can add anything to it and it's alright. This is the cheapest and most nutritious of all the foods I have eaten in any part of the world. You can also eat as much kichari as you want without any fear, because it digests so smoothly. This diet is suitable for all yoga practitioners and it is ideal for those who are ranging high in spiritual life and are about to merge into the ultimate state.”
- Satsang – Correct communication
Satsang means association with those who seek the truth. The members of a commune are there because they have a common urge to find the truth. Some might be more capable than others, but all will roughly harbor the same burning flame inside them. We can say that in an ashram we all reside and unite our efforts for a common development. If we could all tune ourselves into this thought, everything would work better. All the problems that arise when people live together are based on the illusion of individuality and the ego. Ammaji once said: “we are not the same, but we are all one”. This is a great truth to realize. We may not think the same, act the same, talk in the same way, but our essence comes from the same source, hence we are one and we affect each other.
Here are some suggestions for using satsang for our benefit:
- Breaking the law of survival: A great benefit of ashram living is that the members are free from the “survival urge”: they are not there to prove anything because the natural law of “survival of the fittest” doesn’t exist in the ashram. Nobody will “lose their job” if they don’t do something right. Everyone has his/her place and everyone is equally important or unimportant. So excuses, confirmations, extreme efforts and hyper-communication are not necessary. The ashram environment gives us the perfect opportunity to face ourselves and every situation in our lives “without identification, justification, and condemnation” as Ammaji very often asks us to do. But often we waste this opportunity, forgetting that we no longer live under the antagonistic laws of society, and acting on our programmed instincts. But in the ashram, “we have nothing to lose” if we just act as our true selves.
- Others are there to mirror us: usually what we see in others is the projection of ourselves and/or what we need to see. Ammali said once that we can only see the true essence of someone, if we love them. Love is the one and only “see-through” lens. The rest are just distorted lens. This distortion is there to teach us who we are. If something about another individual annoys us, it is most likely that we have the same attitude in ourselves, and recognizing this allows us to detect our own flaws. Those around us are those that we deserve to have so that our outer environment reflects our inner world.
- Mauna - use (and not misuse) of communication: Mauna means silence. Mauna is a spiritual practice used in all religions and spiritual practices. It is very clear that by practicing outer Mauna, an inner Mauna slowly develops. When we cannot share our thoughts, we reduce the amount of thoughts we produce. Scientists found that speaking stimulates the left hemisphere (connected with logic) and non-speaking stimulates imagination and inspiration (qualities of the right hemisphere of the brain). In Yoga we try to use imagination and visualization to reach higher states of mind. The higher levels of our consciousness do not use words. They use vibration symbols and occasionally images. The act of speech has become so overused that we have forgotten how to read people. How to read their bodies, how to feel their emotions. Empathy has become extinct, mostly because we expect others to tell us how they feel. We have also trained our words to lie. We can easily lie in words but it is very difficult to lie with our body or our eyes. Most people just hear (not even listen to) our words and expect to know us only through this exchange.
By practicing the discipline of Mauna we can reactivate the power of imagination and visualization and find the link towards our higher mind. Mauna is also a beautiful way to observe ourselves without “identification, justification, and condemnation”. Most of the time we talk to criticize, to make a statement about who we are, what we do and why we do it, making the ‘’identification, justification, and condemnation’’ impossible to avoid. Mauna keeps us away from this process of analyzing, so that we can “burn” these samskaras (habits).
The Yama/Niyamas are skills in action and not theories for discussion or articles. We can say that the way to “practice” Yama/Niyama is through a “compressed life” in the ashram.
In the ashram we are intensively trained to live life without attachments, desires, and personal achievements. We condense and limit our experiences to the ones which will aid our development. We aim more for spiritual life than spiritual practice. We work more on life techniques than on spiritual techniques. We do not try to escape life, but more to use life to “return to nothing using something”. We are trained to be “experience oriented” and not “goal oriented”.
Ammaji always highlights that the character is what will lead us to Moksha, and not the Yoga techniques. She constantly finds different ways of emphasizing that the techniques, without the proper character, lead to illusions. The Ashram living offers us a compressed experience, speeding-up our journey to Mosha (freedom).
However, even those who have a desire for evolution can struggle with the idea of losing their individuality, so they will find difficulties with the principles of ashram life.
One has to check if one prefers “paradise” to “Moksha”. In “Paradise” we keep our individuality but with Moksha the sense of “I” is lost. Who wants to be no-one??
Credits : Ammaji's and Ananda Bhalayogi Bhavanani's Satsangs.
Yoga Step By Step- Swami Gitananda
Samyama Yoga- Swami Gitananda
An exploration of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali by Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani
Swami Satyananda Satsangs - from Bihar School of Yoga
Imagine: how creativity works by Jonah Lehrer (it explores brain science and creativity)