Can We Lead a Spiritual Life in a Material World and Still Achieve a Balance?

(Here is the Transliteration scheme for sanskrit.)

Universe is an Illusion
brahman is Real
Universe is brahman
— Adi SankarAcArya

The above quote has a profound meaning for me. When I started off my yoga practices, about 5 years ago, I did not understand this seemingly contradictory statement. However, I understand it better now, than I did then. When a person embarks on a spiritual journey, one is first taught that the whole of this universe is an illusion or mAya and that brahman is the only reality. However, upon realization, or at least having a glimpse, of the brahman the practitioner realizes that the universe is also brahman, meaning it is real and all the universes appear and disappear within brahman. As you can see now that if we understand this well, we will not see any conflict between the spiritual and material lives. I have learned this the hard way. However, it is not easy in practice. I will explain in the next few paragraphs my understanding of the process of achieving a balance.

It has long been held that a person on a spiritual path should renounce everything and strive to annihilate his ego-self. He should put others before himself. Denial of the world and body is encouraged. It is said, “you are not the body, you are not the mind, you are something beyond.” In some religious beliefs this is taken to such an extreme that body is considered a sin and corporeal mortification is even encouraged. You can see the parallel in the first two lines of the quote.

This is mostly because of misunderstanding of the scriptures or because people saw their teachers or gurus do some things and tried copying them without any understanding, or well intentioned gurus teaching body and self-denial because that was their own experience.

Traditionally, Hindu philosophy and other religions taught that everyone’s goal is Spiritual/Self-/God-Realization. So, whatever one does in life, it’s to be geared towards that goal. A simple model for the creation of the universe (discussed in On Gurus and Disciples) states that universe appears and disappears in (or emanates from and dissolves into) brahman or the Self that is both nothing (void) and everything (infinity) at the same time. So, depending on one’s temperament, whether one wants to be a renunciate or a householder, one may view the ultimate reality to be void or infinity, respectively, and live accordingly. This realization came to me only recently. Until this realization, I was torn between my spiritual life and work life. I felt that working for money to lead a happy life, and competing in the world goes against the requirement of annihilation of the ego-self needed for spiritual life. This created a lot of conflict in me.

Since everything is a manifestation of the Self, even the ego-self comes from that and is a restricted form of the Self. Let’s call this the Narrow Sense of Self (NSS). NSS says, “mine,” “my needs,” “my home,” “my car,” etc. If your view of brahman is void you will strive for the annihilation of NSS. If you don’t have a family, societal obligations and you are all alone, then you can renounce all, become a hermit (or, sanyAsin), go to a forest or the Himalayas, sit in a cave, meditate for the annihilation of the NSS and hope to be enlightened. However, it is not possible for all. What if you are not alone, you have obligations toward your family, you cannot renounce all. You live in this increasingly competitive world. You (most of us do) work in environments where NSSs rule. People step on toes and sabotage one another in order to get ahead. If we take on the view that we must annihilate our NSS in order to be enlightened, while still working to make a living and support our families, we will experience a lot of inner conflict and survival becomes difficult. On one side we want to take to task the people who wrong us, but on the other we want to annihilate our NSS, because we feel that’s what we have to do on our spiritual quest. What to do?

This is where bhagavadgItA comes into action. Lord Krishna tought a lot of techniques to be selected based on ones temperament. One of them is kriyA or karma yOga or yOga of Action. He says that kriyA; or karma yOga is better than renunciation; since the latter is the most difficult to do. This was taught mainly for active people and householders. The term kriyA means action with awareness. He, as a representative of the cosmic mind, taught Arjuna, a representative of the confused human mind, or NSS.

This kriyA yOgA puts emphasis on bringing awareness or presence into every thought, word and deed, for all of them are dynamic energy. Through these practices we do not strive for the annihilation of the NSS, but for expanding our sense of self to infinity to encompass the entire universe. In a sense, we transform the NSS.

What does this Expanded Sense of Self (ESS) mean? When we are alone our sense of self is limited to “I” and “mine.” When we get married, then our sense of self expands to include our spouse and it says, “us” and “ours.” When we expand our family further by having children, our sense of self then expands to include them. For most of us ESS stops here; it is still NSS. Some of us even get competitive with and jealous of others and their success. The goal is to expand our sense of self beyond our family boundaries to encompass our neighbors our city, county, state, country, world and finally the universe to include myriad planets, stars and galaxies. When we identify ourselves this way with everything that is in the universe and beyond, we have truly achieved ESS and in my opinion, this is what is enlightenment. You may now ask, “How does this help me balance my spiritual and material life?”

When we expand our sense of self, we realize that there is no difference between us and the universe. At this point our spiritual and material lives merge. How do we get to this stage?

We have to perform our actions without any expectation of what the result is going to be. This does not mean that we don’t plan or that we don’t have a goal. We do all the planning needed to finish a task. When performing each step of the task, we bring complete awareness and focus into performing that task without thinking about the next task or worrying about previous. This is the true meaning of karma yOga in my opinion. When there is complete involvement there is only doing, the doer and the deed just disappear. We have felt this from time to time when we were doing something we really loved. This needs to be the case in everything we do, be it writing, reading, solving problems, playing sports or anything else. Once we start doing this way, just the doing becomes an end in itself and become very satisfying. Since we are doing things with so much attention that the results turn out very well. I have observed this in my own experience in the last two years. Until couple of years ago, my work mode was that of stress. However, when I started to work in the awareness mode without expectation regarding the outcomes, I started finishing my work much faster with very high quality. Work that would normally take eight hours, now takes half that time. And, I am able to keep my bosses constantly impressed. 🙂 There is also another motivation for me–if I deliver high quality results then boss looks good before his supervisors. You may say that is not selfless service. But, I am not going for selflessness, but I am going for ESS. Now, I have included my manager into my ESS. I want what is best for my manager. This has been very fulfilling way of working for me. I would like to continue to work this way, so I can expand my sense of self to include more of this planet, if not the entire universe, in this life time.

There are few more things we need to follow in order to attain ESS. Living with an ESS is also known, in some circles, as Living from the Heart. I will summarize them below with short explanation for each item.

  • Non-Greed—Earn only what you deserve without being greedy. If you are an employer, make sure that you pay your employees what they deserve.
  • Non-Violence—Being watchful of our thoughts, words and deeds, so we are not hurting others. This is a very difficult thing to do and requires constant practice, since anger is very forceful. We have been conditioned to be reactive and protect our viewpoint at all costs. Initially, it is difficult to control anger. But, if we bring in some awareness and notice that we are angry, that is a start. The intensity of the anger felt reduces each time we bring in awareness. This does not mean that we sit down and take a beating. But, when we stop being reactive and bring in awareness, then we can think clearly to act. This what MahAtma Gandhi taught during his satyAgrahA or Non-Violent Movement to rid India of the colonial rule. This is my understanding of the saying, “turn the other cheek.”
  • Be Honest—Being honest without being hurtful. We have to be very honest in our work. We have to be honest in our speech without being hurtful. We have to be honest in our thinking.
  • Be Joyful—Radiating happiness to all. We should share happy moments and thoughts with everyone around us. Laugh and smile a lot. We should not weigh others down with complaints and our personal problems.
  • Introspect/Meditate—Being introspective. Being watchful of our emotions and thoughts and being detached from them. This brings in greater awareness into our everyday life. After sometime the introspection becomes automatic even when we are not consciously doing it.
  • Exercise—Performing regular physical exercises will keep the body healthy. If we are weak and tired, we are more prone to emotional ups and downs. yOga is a very good form of low impact workout for all ages. A few basic set of poses will do wonders—don’t have to contort ones body into a pretzel. Only through physical body we can achieve ESS, so we need to keep it in good shape. This also brings our awareness and attention into the body which helps it heal.
  • Diet—Eating healthy diet, rich in vegetables, legumes, grains, etc. Do not over eat. Eat to live and do not live to eat.
  • Water—Drink plenty (2–4 liters a day) of clean water. Stay away from carbonated drinks. Reduce amount of caffeine consumption. Stay away from cigarettes and alcohol.

Some of these things are easier to do than others. I am still a work in progress. However, the conflict I had about leading a spiritual life in a material world has disappeared, since I started to incorporate the above steps into my daily life.

4 Responses

  1. Kris says:

    Good one, enjoyed reading it!

  2. vish says:

    All the conflicts resolve if the first 3 lines of the post are correctly understood.

    Uni­verse is an Illu­sion
    brah­man is Real
    Uni­verse is brah­man

    What is called “illusion” in the first line ? It is all the concepts –those are superimposed on “what is” — is illusion. That means whatever concepts, thoughts etc are there about anything seen, heard, touched, tasted etc are illusion. Because all the concepts etc are learned– from teachers, parents etc.

    If this illusion of concepts, thoughts etc is dropped, then what is left is Brahman. What ever is seen, touched, heard etc is brahman.

    But if the above is grasped , then even those concepts are brahman. SO there is nothing other than that–Brahman or divine.

    Material, spiritual etc are concepts. Concepts are required for functioning in the world– but there reality / unreality must be kept in mind

    All the problems come because concepts are taken to to be “the truth”

    Only truth is, everything is divine, is appearing as per divine will (because nothing other than divine exists to “will”).

    Then “who am I ?” The question is to be pondered / meditated to experience the divine,

  3. Vish, thank you for your thoughtful, elaborate comment.