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Spiritual Practices

For those of you with sufficient time and interest, we would suggest that you click on the Teachings and Sadhana links on the top of this page and go through the contents. You could also go through the links to the teachings of Swami Sivananda, Swami Chidananda, and Swami Krishnananda and see all the tremendous teachings they had in regard to spiritual practice. For those who lack the time to go through all we've provided, the following is a short encapsulation of the sort of information you will find in those pages.

The foremost spiritual practice may be almost the simplest-just be interested. Be interested in your own life, that is, what proceeds past you in your outer life and also the phenomena of your inner life. Be interested in your experience, but also your response to your experience. Be interested in discovering the truth about the nature of your own being. Be interested in knowing who you are in all circumstances, and especially who you are when you are under pressure. When, for example, you experience overwhelming desire or feel intense emotion, how do you respond then? Be interested in seeing clearly, and not being satisfied with comfortable assumptions and societal norms.

One of the most time-honoured of all spiritual practices is the art of meditation. The basic mechanics of meditation-sitting in a comfortable but attentive position with the back straight, regulating and deepening the breath, and the restraining of the mind against the rush of the thoughts and fixing it on one point-are well-known and are discussed elsewhere. The key idea here is that the mind is so often restless and consumed by fear and desire, and meditation is the science of stilling the mind so that the demands of the restless mind get quieter. Once one has begun to experience the profundity that deep meditation brings, one can then begin to see more into what lies beyond the endless workings of the mind. At the beginning, meditation may prove to be difficult and discouraging, because the mind will not settle down. One must simply persevere; even if the benefits may not be evident at the outset, they are there nonetheless. One should sit some time in the early morning, say about 20-30 minutes, and then have another sitting in the evening before one becomes too tired-again of about the same duration. The number of sittings and the duration can be increased as one grows to be more comfortable with the practice.

Swami Sivananda was a firm believer in the regularity of meditation and also in maintaining the same contemplative attitude even while going about one's daily life. We find that the mind becomes especially distracted when we are going through the affairs of our day, and for this purpose repetition of a mantra can be very helpful, as it can go on in the mind while one is also engaged with outer activities. Or, if one does not favor mantra practice, it may be simply a matter of cultivating deep and undistracted awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness in one's life is like meditation with the eyes open. Practices such as yoga asanas (postures), pranayama (controlled breathing) and regular study of spiritual literature can be used to help prepare for and support the meditation practice.

There are all sorts of human temperaments and therefore all sorts of different types of practice. The four major types of Yoga-Karma, Bhakti, Jnana, and Raja-are based on the fact that different personalities and backgrounds require different methods of approach. (See the link for Yoga for more information.) Gurudev believed at the same time that there should be a conjoining of these practices into a Yoga of Synthesis. Without neglecting any area of practice or overemphasizing another area, one can wisely use each in due measure. Selfless Service (Karma), coupled with love and devotion for God (Bhakti), aided by a quest for ultimate Knowledge (Jnana), and disciplined by self-control and advanced meditation practice (Raja Yoga) can all together carry one towards the ultimate Yoga, which is union with God.

There are five Sanskrit words beginning with the letter "S" which can be gathered together in a nice little "yogic bouquet:" santosh, svadhyaya, satsang, sadhana, and samadhi. Santosh means "contentment," but it is not a contentment based on fulfilling a desire or relaxing into a complacent state. It refers rather to an abiding peace that comes from resting in one's true nature. The prerequisite for santosh is ethical culture; one should be living a moral and responsible life that recognises the worth of others. As one overcomes the selfish desires and fears of the ego and their accompanying 'dis-ease,' one begins naturally to experience a peace that comes from deep within. This peace (shanti in Sanskrit, another "S" word!) is a divine attribute and is the joyous, natural state of the human being.

Svadhyaya is daily study of spiritual texts or works by realised saints. (It can also be, in the broader sense of the word, self-study through enquiry (called vichara) into the nature of the ultimate Self. It may take the form of persistent questioning, "Who am I," or some other introspective inner investigation.) The exercise is not one of casual reading or sloppy thinking where there is no real self-involvement. One is studying these great texts because they should be applied to oneself and one's life. We don't read merely to fatten the mind and ego, but rather as a means to bring about fundamental change in ourselves. In the Indian tradition, such scriptures as the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, and the Srimad Bhagavatam should be intensively studied. However, these books may not correspond to your background and interest. In that case, you should search diligently for great inspirational works in your own tradition and try to read something from them each day.

The third word is satsang (association with the wise). The greatest teaching is from the lives of saints and sages themselves, and to be able to be in their presence is considered a great blessing. This type of 'association with the wise' serves to elevate the mind and gives encouragement to the spiritual seeker. One would also ultimately hope to find an enlightened person as one's guru, for it is through satsang with the guru that the greatest instruction is received-either in spoken or unspoken form. If such elevated company is not available, satsang can also mean the gathering together of like-minded devotees to support and instruct one another. ("Where two or more of you are gathered together in my name, there also am I," said Lord Jesus.) If that two is unavailable, one can have satsang through great texts or through the invocation of deity in a mantra or prayer.

Sadhana is a word that encompasses all the others as it means 'spiritual practice.' The essence of spiritual practice is that we actually practice it! It's no use building castles in the air and imagining that we are "practising" when we are in fact doing whatever we like. True sadhana happens because one's intention is clear-"I want to realise God in this very life, and I will not be deterred from my goal." Persistently, unwaveringly and with awesome perseverance one simply refuses to give up until the final goal is reached. Whatever the individual practice is, the key is that it is sincerely carried out with confidence and enthusiasm.

The final term is at first glance not one that would normally be in an introduction for beginners. It is samadhi and means "Union with God." What long-term seeker, let alone a beginner, can get their head around an ultimate concept like this? Samadhi means absorption into the ultimate Self in which the individual ego melts into the Eternal. Who can even conceive of a state such as this? The very idea causes us to run away in fear! "Oh my gosh, give up my ego! No thanks!" Yet, somehow it is in fact fitting that this word comes here. We must understand from the outset that our definitive goal is not merely to feel better, or not be so unhappy, or just be a better version of our old selves; no, the goal of sadhana is to return to that place which we really have never left. Gurudev said that man is essentially a divine being and his innermost essence is the Self. We are then, even in the beginning, on a voyage of self-discovery that finally brings us back to our own true Self.

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