Come walk with me
I’ve been revisiting the rich teachings and wisdom of my Vedic heritage as I traverse my golden years. Examining them through the lens of the world around me today, I realize the need to re-interpret Vanaprastha and Sannyasa for myself, for the present day in which I live. Back in those ‘golden-olden’ days, society looked after an individual entering Vanaprastha; he or she did not have to worry about the next meal or a roof overhead. Today, so many of our fellow seniors cannot see beyond a meal for the day. How can they possibly contemplate transitioning from the obligations of a householder? How can they detach from society to enter introspection? How best can the more fortunate among us – those who have enjoyed a decent life, and are now reasonably secure in their circumstances – deal with the ‘emptiness’ of the transition from Grihasta?
Come and walk with me for a while on my quest to be a modern-day Yogi in today’s America, and I’ll tell you.
Historic path to self-realization
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a collection of around two hundred statements, observations or truths that describe the science of Yoga in its entirety. The Yoga Sutras describe the Raja Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga – the eight-step practice that enables individuals to attain self-control, discipline, internal clarity, peace and ultimately self-realization or Samadhi – the ecstatic union of the individual with the cosmos. Scholars believe these primary scriptures of Yoga were written around the 2nd century BCE. Through the intervening centuries, philosophers and learned sages have been pulling at the threads of Patanjali’s work, translating and explaining them for our consumption.
Each stage or limb of Ashtanga Yoga builds naturally on those that precede it. The first four limbs are designed to help us gain control over our bodies and become aware of ourselves. When you or I talk about ‘practicing yoga,’ we are referring to Asana, the third limb which follows Yama and Niyama. The postures we practice – often referred to as Hatha Yoga – help us maintain physical health and well-being. In addition, they promote self-discipline, focus and concentration, and prepare us for meditation. Pranayama, which literally means life-force extension, is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga, and consists of breath-control techniques to rejuvenate the body and extend life. It is either practiced on its own, or integrated into Hatha Yoga routines.
The next three stages, Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana are preparation for the last, ultimate stage: Samadhi. They involve a conscious withdrawal from the outside world and an effort to transcend external stimuli to focus increasingly inward. This cultivation of detachment and an increased effort to concentrate and singularly focus inward, while leveraging the training in posture and breath control leads naturally to Dhyana: meditation or contemplation.
Meditation or Mindfulness?
In Eastern philosophy, cultures and tradition – whether it be the scientific path of Yoga or one of the more monastic forms of Buddhism, meditation is a practice that combines inward focus and concentration with controlled breathing, allowing individuals to follow their breath to an inner harmonious state. Harmony, peace, tranquility, and compassion both for self and others should follow.
The prevalence of meditation in other cultures and religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has traditionally been described by scholars as self-administered techniques for inner transformation. Attempts to link meditation and spirituality have created controversy. Western meditation typically involved the reading of religious texts, prayer, and contemplation. Worldwide interest in Eastern forms of meditation and their adoption began in earnest around the middle of the 20th century as travel increased. The same period witnessed a rapid decline of religion, especially Christianity, in the US, Europe, and most of the Western world. This trend, coupled with a marked increase in stress and mental-health issues induced by the unrelenting pace of modern life and work began to drive people to seek other sources for comfort and healing; to the practice of meditation and the health benefits that accrue from it. A growing body of scientific evidence verifies what Patanjali taught centuries ago: regular meditation improves physical and mental health; it reduces blood pressure, helps with digestive disorders, eases the symptoms of anxiety and depression, improves sleep, and promotes physical changes in the brain that promote better overall health.
We often hear the term mindfulness these days; some use it interchangeably with meditation. There are differences, however. Meditation is a practice, while mindfulness is a state or quality.
Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Mindfulness is a cultivated behavior, the process of focusing one’s attention. We can derive a lot of value by making it part of our way of life. Mindfulness and being in the moment are key to building resilience and overcoming adversity and stress. The essence of mindfulness is embedded in the practices of Ashtanga Yoga.
Whether you are on the Ashtanga path towards the ultimate goal of a Yogi, an agnostic, or a disbeliever; whether you practice this or that religion or are an atheist, whether you are on the modern-day treadmill seemingly getting nowhere, or attuned with Mother Nature with days filled with purpose, the regular practice of meditation is good for your body, your mind, and your soul. Regardless of what terminology you use – mindfulness or something else, the ability to focus your attention and be in the present moment with equanimity is worth developing. Attributions to East or West and distinguishing between shades of meaning may be interesting philosophically or may make for a robust debate, but they do not change the individual outcome. Meditation, pranayama, and mindfulness transcend culture, religion, and national or political boundaries. They have intrinsic value. Pranayama and meditation should be part of all stages of our life journey. I’m trying to make them part of mine.
Heading towards Liberation
In Vedic culture, the path of Ashtanga Yoga weaves through the four Ashramas or stages of spiritual life. Beginning with Brahmacharya or student life, the Ashramas set a living framework and define spiritual practices based on the duties and responsibilities required at each stage of life, as the individual progresses on a path towards ultimate self-realization or Samadhi. Brahmacharya sets the foundation, provides learning about family life and community, teaches spiritual practice, and provides yogic training. The second stage of life is spent as a Grihastha or householder – raising and supporting a family, following one’s worldly interests, continuing to drink from the fountain of Jnana, and carrying out the teachings of Bhakti and Karma Yoga. Once these responsibilities are fulfilled, the individual begins to withdraw from the world into the transitional stage of Vanaprastha, counseling the family and community while becoming increasingly more detached, with decreasing attention to the world and surroundings. Attention instead turns inward in preparation for the final stage: Sannyasa or renunciation, working towards the attainment of Samadhi, and ultimately seeking Moksha or salvation.
Every religion and culture addresses Moksha –liberation from the state of being human to become one with the cosmos or some higher power – in its own terms, and with its own descriptions and definitions of both the pathway and the ultimate end state. The Bhagavad Gita describes three margas or pathways: Bhakti (devotion), Jnana (knowledge), and Karma (duty or service). You will find proponents and devoted followers of each approach. The descriptions, discussions, and discourse on each alternative, and the relative merits of one versus the other would fill a small library.
While commenting on Adi Sankara’s renowned devotional hymn Bhaja Govindam, the elder statesman and writer C. Rajagopalachari stated “the way of devotion is not different from the way of knowledge or jnana. When intelligence matures and lodges securely in the mind, it becomes wisdom. When wisdom integrates with life and issues out in action, it becomes bhakti. Knowledge when it becomes fully mature is Bhakti. If it does not get transformed into Bhakti, such knowledge is useless tinsel. To believe that knowledge and devotion, jnana and bhakti are different from each other is ignorance.”
Intuitively, and from an objective viewpoint, one could argue – and I do – that ultimately all three paths overlap. I would leave the distinctions to philosophers and debaters.
Re-defining my path
This sets the stage for the central tenet I wish to present. Each of us is formed by our experiences. The older among us were born in India, growing up in an environment with traditional culture and roots, in society and familial environment that formed our values and guided our practices of daily living. We now live – either in India or relocated in our adopted countries – in a modern world that has transformed significantly in the space of a generation. During this transformation, we’ve had to adapt to a new way of life. We’ve changed in many ways and adjusted to different societal norms and thinking. The attitudes and practices of daily living have changed for most of us. I would argue that in either era – then or now, most people would not move all the way up the ladder of Ashtanga Yoga and attain a level of Yogic discipline and practice to be prepared and ready to renounce their way of life and enter Sannyasa in a quest for Samadhi. A few might, but not most. To the rest of us today, I pose the question: can we adapt the guidance of our ancient Yoga Scriptures and build for ourselves the model of a modern-day Yogi?
I posit that we should embrace the conceptual basis of Vanaprastha and Sannyasa spiritually, and adapt them for our modern times. We should treat Vanaprastha not as a time for transition and withdrawal, but as a time for liberation and increased activism. During this stage of life, Bhakti Yoga provides enrichment, courage, and support as we sustain ourselves in the face of the realities of aging. Let’s leverage this support to actively pursue the path of Karma Yoga –selfless service to others – and work for the benefit of our communities, always dipping into the ocean of Jnana to learn how better to serve our fellow man. Continue to find strength and comfort in Bhakti Yoga. By doing so, we will find our Sukham – joy and fulfillment. As we continue our service, we will slowly but surely embed tiny fragments of ourselves in our fellow human beings, and find our own salvation through each of them. We will successfully make our transition to an ecstatic union with the cosmos.
Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents.