In nineteenth century Europe, when society was in the throes of the industrial revolution, a political commentator, observing how passively the people accepted the awful conditions in the cities, made a remark which was to become quoted world-wide: “Religion is the opium of the people”.
His view was that the comfort offered by organized religion took away the will of the poor to improve their lot in everyday life. Could the same be said of mysticism?
By focusing the attention inside, in effect saying, “This is where I can escape the pain of living, this is where I can experience the most important relationship which is with my Creator, this is where love is to be found”, does the mystic fail to live his or her outer life to the full? Could mystic experience be compared to a drug which gives a short-lived access to a different level of consciousness, but doesn’t help us in the here and now or actually bring us closer to spiritual reality?
What is real?
In our fast-moving modern world, we are prepared to work and play with the things which are clearly not ‘real’, but we want ‘the real thing’ to turn to at the end.
We struggle with the blurred lines between illusion and truth, uneasily aware of how simple it has become to create illusion, whether by electronic means, ‘virtual reality’ or a chemically induced mind state. We haven’t quite reached the stage where we have to work out whether the person in front of us is a hologram or actual flesh and blood, but sometimes we suspect that we’re not far off. And our difficulties are not just with illusion per se. We find it hard to know whether we are being manipulated by those in the world around us who purport to be our friends. Are politicians ‘genuine’ or ‘false’ in what they say? Journalists constantly pore over the question of whether those in power have told us the truth or not. We long to know which of the two we’re dealing with – the real or the unreal.
Where does mysticism – and, in particular, Sant Mat, the teachings of the saints or Masters – fit in to this? Unlike politicians, the Masters don’t go out seeking followers or making elaborate promises. They call themselves ordinary and average. They are born like us, grow up like us, and go through the same processes of life in whatever culture they live. They lead a family life, they earn their living, they even play like us. Yet they give a quiet but consistent message which is both radical and surprising. They suggest that the very things around us in which we have the most confidence, including our own physical bodies and even their own physical form are in fact illusion. If we want to find reality, we have to look somewhere else.
Then they tell us about a greater reality which we can be taught to access. It’s entered through the human body, by taking the attention between and behind the two eyes, and it leads us far beyond the physical. We don’t have to put our faith in this as a long-term, future hope. We can test the claims of the Masters here and now. This is where Sant Mat differs from religion.
From instinct to practice
The Masters appreciate our need to question, test and prove. You may have even heard the present Master ask something like: How do you know that I am who people say I am? How do you know I’m not really just a good actor? You may have heard him jokingly tell stories about those who have not been able to reconcile their idea of how an evolved soul should behave, dress and talk, and with how the Master is in actuality. You may have heard the story about the air hostess who observed the Master on her flight and whispered to her companion: “That can’t be the Guru – he’s wearing jeans !”
In suggesting that we question him, isn’t Baba Gurinder Singh really asking us to question ourselves, to look deeply at our own conditioning? Aren’t we really, in spite of our feeling of modernity, living in the dark ages? Aren’t we blinded by the assumptions we cling to and the idea that spirituality will have certain external trappings and rituals, and then it will be ‘real’?
Let’s try to answer Baba Ji’s question: how do we know that the Master is who we think he is? If we are honest, we will have to say that we don’t know – but we have a strong gut feeling. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s probably the most reliable instinct we’ve got and we should use it to prompt us to get solid proof. It must lead us to practice so that our instinct can be turned into knowledge, and thence into experience.
To put the Master’s advice into practice we must do several things. We must adopt a vegetarian diet, we must give up alcohol and mind-affecting drugs, and we must lead an honest, moral life which includes chastity outside of marriage. These are things which must be established before taking the step of initiation. They are not necessarily easy. They require self-discipline and they require that one can handle situations with other people to whom one may have to say, “I’ve decided not to eat meat any more” or “I’m no longer drinking, or taking drugs” or “I want to follow this path. I hope you’ll support me.” These things may present a number of challenges, but with each challenge met, the seeker becomes stronger.
On initiation we then begin to put into practice the method of meditation given to us. We start setting aside regular time each day to build up contact with our Master through our meditation. We try to control our mind during the day; we carry out the simran and practise listening for the inner sound, the Shabd. These are the things which will bring us proof of the philosophy, of what the Master has told us from his own experience. If we are honestly following his instructions, then the following things should happen.
Although there will be many, many days when our attention in meditation is scattered, if we persevere, we should begin to feel more in touch with what is inside us. We will begin to be aware sometimes of that quiet darkness behind our closed eyes. Our attention will, through simran, start to collect there. Even before we experience sound or light, we will begin to feel a certain contentment, even bliss. That concentration will make us better able to cope with the outer circumstances of life. We should be better able to sort the important from the unimportant, the permanent from the impermanent, the real from the illusion, because we are getting more in touch with our own real selves. Coping with life is not meditation’s purpose, but it is a by-product of concentration. Therefore, we do not find that following the saints’ advice makes us losers in life, rather the opposite. We stop expecting life to be a bed of roses, that it will satisfy our hopes and expectations, that life will be ‘the real thing’ for us. And when we do that, when we start finding the real thing inside, miraculously life becomes a pleasure. So that is only the very beginning of testing Sant Mat. The real proof begins when everything that the Master has told us at the time of initiation begins to become evident to us inside, when we start seeing that light and hearing that sound and travelling within. Then we will know first hand, and our faith in the Master will increase by leaps and bounds.
The science of the soul
Sant Mat is not a religion at all. The practice of Sant Mat – which is meditation, is not ritualistic. It’s not to give you a bit of comfort until you can receive the reward of heaven in the after-life. It’s to make you start travelling now and, as you start travelling, the evidence of whether you are travelling in the right direction will accumulate. So Sant Mat is a science. In the age of science, Sant Mat is pure science because it has a hypothesis and a method which is conducted with the same materials and under the same circumstances by everybody. And a conclusion which will prove the hypothesis.
Maharaj Sawan Singh wrote in The Dawn of Light:
An individual may follow any religion he professes, but everyone can practise the science of spirituality and conduct the experiment of connecting the soul with the Lord within … in order to realize God, he has to enter the laboratory of his body in the same manner as a student of science enters his laboratory. The student of science shuts the outer door so as to exclude noise and avoid distraction. All the instruments, which have been cleaned, are placed on a table …. In order to achieve success in this experiment of spiritual science, he must have the active guidance and constant help of a saint, whom we can call the master scientist …. His advice and guidance are based on personal experience and not on mere tradition or hearsay.