The world of karma, actions, thoughts, situations and circumstances is a testing ground. It is a place where one can find out about oneself . It is a workshop, where the mind-body instrument can be sharpened and made receptive to the influx of higher knowledge and awareness. It is in the world that we can test if the psychophysical blade needs sharpening. If it is blunt, which is usually the case, it is through the world of everyday experiences that it can be sharpened to cut through the veil of ignorance. The world is to be used as a means to tuning the mind-body complex.
Many people go to quiet places to find peace. They don't realize that they are carrying the source of their unhappiness within them. Some people spend years and years in isolation, yet they often fail to find the peace that they so desperately seek. The reason is simple - it is very difficult to find your mental problems when there is no interaction with other people. The problems remain in the mind and act as blocks, though unrecognized blocks. Most people have to interact with others, if they are to confront and remove their mental problems. There is one man who spent five years as a hermit in the Himalayas, intent on finding the experience of illumination. He never found what he was looking for and was eventually forced to return to society. He admitted that although he gained something, he could probably have gained more by remaining in society and practising karma yoga and other yogic practices. Many people have made the same mistake.
If you want to progress on the yogic path it is not necessary to become a recluse and retire to a mountain cave. If you do so, you may feel a taste of peace and tranquillity, but it probably will not be of sufficient depth to allow the spontaneous occurrence of meditation. It will more than likely be a very superficial sense of happiness. Your mental blocks will remain within your mind and prevent meditation.
You will probably be forced to leave your solitude to remove your problems. Not only this, but your desires and cravings for objects, tasty food, etc., which you previously did not think twice about, will drive you back to society. Objects, tasty food, etc., which you took for granted, will envelop the mind, and your thoughts will be totally absorbed in memories of previous enjoyments. We are not saying that people waste their time when they sojourn in the Himalayas, or in any other quiet place, for many have transformed their whole life in this way. But the people who gain meaningful experiences under these circumstances are people who have previously exhausted most of their problems in society. A person who has a reasonably calm mind will probably make good progress and have wonderful experiences in solitude. But the majority of people will waste their time. It is first of all necessary to clean the mind within society while doing yoga, including karma yoga.
It is in the middle of a teeming city or town, or while involved in disruptive work situations that you are faced with the most overwhelming problems. Otherwise it is difficult to confront them, let alone remove them. A person who lives in a protected environment is not likely to know his or her problems for they will never know the unhappiness of facing uncomfortable situations. It is necessary to become involved with life and practise karma yoga.
Our ashram is situated in a most unlikely place; it seems on initial consideration, to be very badly located. It lies between a railway line and a dusty road. It appears to be caught between 'the devil and the deep blue sea'. Throughout the day the road is very busy, for it is the main road to the River Ganges. It is on this road that the dead are taken to the river for cremation. This is done in a noisy procession, accompanied by a fanfare of drums and trumpets and other clanging instruments. There is continuous noise around the ashram and visitors often comment that the location is most unsuitable. They have concepts and visions of an ashram in the middle of a forest, with thousands of peacocks and other brightly coloured singing birds, running streams of crystal clear water, herds of deer, and perhaps Lord Shiva himself meditating under a tree. Their preconceived ideas are destroyed when they first see our ashram, but it is more than a certainty that the location is perfectly satisfactory because the ashram is not intended as a retreat. It is not a place to escape from the world. If one wants to escape the big, bad world then the ashram is the wrong and the last place to come. It is too noisy, for it retains its relationship with the activities of the outside world. The ashram is actually situated in an ideal place, for if one can do their yogic practices in the ashram then one can do them almost anywhere. It is a place where one learns to come to terms with oneself and the world, where one clearly recognizes and eventually eliminates inner problems. It is a place to practise karma yoga. It is not a place where you can languish in a sleepy state of calmness, and perhaps be fooled into thinking that you are meditating. It is similar to the busy world in general - a place where one interacts with others and discovers one's mental blocks.
To summarize: the world is not to be shunned. It is a place to be used in order to remove our faults and imperfections. There are many people who regard spiritual life, including yoga, as being divorced from day to day activities and life in general. This is completely wrong. A person must work, but at the same time transform it by doing karma yoga. This is the path to spiritual experience. Eventually a stage will come when you will feel an inner silence and peace amongst even the most intense activity, harassing situations and the noisiest surroundings. At this stage, one is ready to go to the mountains, though there will actually be no need. There will be a feeling of peace in all situations and one will live in the experience of meditation. This is clearly stated in the Astravakra Cita: "The enlightened one neither avoids the crowd, nor seeks the forest. Under all conditions, in any place, he remains perfectly balanced." (18:100) One will practise karma yoga, in the deepest sense, continuously.
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