by Swami Krishnananda
Physical solitude is to be followed up with psychological non-attachment, which is really the commencement of true yoga. In fact, when we are psychologically detached in an effective manner, physical seclusion may not be necessary. This is a slightly advanced stage where the physical environment does not very much influence the condition of the mind because the mind has studied the world more deeply now and is able to look at it with a proper vision, and in a correct perspective. Earlier, the vision was distorted, and there was a series of wrong impressions which the world created in the mind, due to which there was a chance of getting attached to various things, the objects of the world. Inasmuch as the mind is the principle factor determining our life in every way, whatever its condition is, that is our condition also. Mind is man, man is mind.
We are asked to live in physical seclusion to enable the mind to train itself properly, because in a confused physical atmosphere or a chaotic environment, it would be difficult for the mind to adjust itself to the required disciplinary procedures as demanded in the practice of yoga. It is necessary that we should, as far as possible, live in conditions which are not too obstructive, hampering, or opposing – not even tempting. “Balavan indriya-gramo vidvamsam api karshati,” said the great Manu. Not the wisest can say that he has controlled the senses, because the senses have their own tactics, and like a whirlwind they can act when the conditions are favourable; and while they appear to be good friends, they can act as the worst enemies under given conditions.
We are misconstruing the very relationship we have with the senses by imagining that they are our friends, and that they give us correct reports about things outside us. They give us wrong reports, mislead us, and tell us lies, which we take for the whole truth and get immersed in a mess of error after error, piled one over the other.
While we are in seclusion, we also have to get guidance from a spiritual master. It is impossible to get tired of repeating this necessity for a Guru in the practice of yoga. Except, perhaps, in the last stage of consummation, we are always in need of a guide because we are treading a very precipitous path, and we are entering into regions of which we have absolutely no foreknowledge. Every stage of life in our ascent is a strange land whose conditions may look frightening and quite unsuited to our temperament and to what we have been accustomed earlier. When experiences come to us, they may come as surprises. In fact, every important or meaningful experience in life is a surprise to us. While there are no surprises in the world – everything is natural and normal – to us all these look as surprises because we have not been accustomed to them. We are used to living in a cocoon of our own personal imaginations and prejudiced ideas, and when truth reveals itself gradually, every degree of this revelation of truth comes as a wonder, a miracle, a surprise, etc. We have to be guarded in these conditions. Otherwise, we would not know who is standing before us, and what is happening to us.
Sometimes, when we are seated in a railway train, the train will be going backward. We do not know what is happening. We intend that the train go forward. It is going backward for some purpose, though that is a part of its forward movement. Likewise, there can be a retracement of our steps or even an apparent fall, which may look very startling to a sensitive seeker. All these have to be borne with fortitude, understanding, and with guidance from the preceptor that has to come to us from time to time. Either we have to be with our parents, or with our Guru. It is no use standing alone on our legs; otherwise, life will be a danger.
In physical sequestration, such as we have in holy atmospheres like Sri Badrinath, Kedarnath, or in a temple or a monastery, an ashram, etc. – in such atmospheres of solitude, we have to ponder over the aim of life, the purpose for which we have taken to such a life and, if necessary, write down in a private diary the various steps that we may have to take and the different troubles that may befall us. It is unwise to think that in seclusion we are always safe. Though seclusion is a necessity and it is supposed to be a protection from our involvement in unwanted environments, these environments can project themselves even in solitude because undesirable environments are not always physical or external. They are only certain situations that are created externally by a susceptibility of our internal character, and as long as this susceptibility is there, the danger can be anywhere – even in the holy of holies of a temple. As medical men tell us, disease is a susceptibility to certain intrusions of external force. These forces are always there; sometimes we are impervious to them, and at other times we are susceptible. When we are susceptible, we get into the clutches of these undesirable forces.
There is no use merely living in physical solitude while there are unfulfilled desires. Bereavements, frustrations, demotions in office, etc., cannot be regarded as preconditions for the practice of yoga. It would be a great blunder to think like that. There cannot be a greater positivity of approach than the spiritual life and, therefore, any negative condition of life cannot be a qualification for the practice of yoga. The negative conditions are frustrations of a different type. Inability to get the requisite type of enjoyment and comfort may drive a person to spiritual life. That would not be a qualification; rather, it would be a disqualification.
Taking to a path that is spiritual is a positive yearning of the soul for a higher attainment because it is satisfied fully with all the lower types of experience, having understood them thoroughly, threadbare – not because it could not take advantage of the comforts and facilities that the lower experiences would give. We must be capable of taking advantage of all the lower facilities of life, and yet renounce them voluntarily. It should not be that circumstances are unfavourable for a comfortable life. Otherwise, there would be a sense of defeatism in the heart, an inferiority complex creeping into us, and a sorrow which may be deep-rooted even without our knowing that it is there. We may be looking small in the eyes of people on account of a deficiency in our personality, which may drive us to a path that is Godly or spiritual; but that would have a reaction because of the sense of inadequacy felt in our own self. A smallness or an inferiority that made us feel sorry and unhappy may react upon us by creating conditions sometime or the other which may sink us in those favourable conditions contributory to enjoyment of those very things which we could not get earlier. Anything that we want, we must get. This is a law of nature. And if we deeply want a thing, it must come to us. But wanting a thing and not getting it would not be a spiritual condition because that condition would seek fulfilment one day or the other, and it is these conditions that come as obstacles in the path of yoga.
We have stories given in the Puranas, the Epics, etc., that even great sages had obstacles of peculiar natures – coming not only from the external world here, but even from celestial realms. All these oppositions that one has to face in spiritual life are nothing but the reactions objectively set up by our susceptibility to pleasure or physical enjoyment, egoistic satisfaction, sensory contact, etc. So, while we are in physical solitude, we are not always free from danger. Sometimes, we may be in a greater danger there than in a public atmosphere. That is why in some of the scriptures dealing with the subject of renunciation, we are told that a person who leads an absolutely isolated life should not live in a village for more than three days and in a town for not more than five days. All these precautions are given because there is a possibility of attachment or familiarity with the atmosphere. When we are familiar with conditions outside us, we try to find occasions for taking advantage of that familiarity and utilising that familiarity for our personal satisfactions – physical, sensory, egoistic, etc.
It is useless – especially for a youngster, a beginner or a novitiate – to live absolutely alone without proper guidance from a superior; otherwise, they will fall with a thud and break their legs. In the initial stages of living in physical solitude it is necessary to live in the company of a group of people. If not, we should have a Guru who would be a sort of protection around us. Rather, it would be a mutual protection provided among one another by co-disciples or co-seekers. And in this physical solitude, we have to cultivate the art of psychological non-attachment, because the purpose of physical solitude is to train the mind for the practice of higher yoga.