Surviving the Desert
Anyone who has taken the tube in London will have heard the phrase “Mind the gap!” being announced over the public address system upon arrival at their destination; this is because of the space between the train and platform. As travellers on the Sant Mat journey, this is a useful phrase for us to remember. To us it means, keep alert to that space that separates us from the world, it is precious!
Throughout the ages, great spiritual teachers have urged disciples to make meditation their first priority. They have been trying to make us realize a truth that they already know – namely, meditation helps us separate ourselves from the world and, in so doing, it brings us closer to our real identity and closer to the Lord.
In the past, spiritual practitioners would often hide away in wild, remote places, physically distancing themselves from their communities in order to become detached from the material life. Early Christian ascetics, known as the Desert Fathers, for example, lived in the desert in Egypt to find the kingdom of heaven as described by Jesus Christ. Similarly, many yogis renounce the world, giving up family, friends and daily comforts to live in jungles or high up in the mountains.
True Masters today don’t ask us to renounce the world in such drastic ways, emphasizing that attachment to the Shabd is the most powerful and effective way to become detached. Yet, in a way, our meditation is the equivalent of going into the desert and forsaking the world. At the very least, our daily practice establishes a physical separation between us and the outside. For those two-and-a-half hours (or whatever time we can give) we can’t engage in any other pursuits, be they related to work, family, or leisure. By carving out this time just for ourselves and our Master, we are, in fact, creating a very marked gap between us and our worldly concerns.
If we continue with the analogy and view our meditation as embarking on a journey into the desert or some other wilderness, we will see that it is important to be properly prepared. Our spiritual survival depends on this in the same way as that of the explorers embarking on some dangerous expedition, or the ascetics abandoning the comforts of life.
Ascetics and yogis make the decision to live semi-reclusive lives, away from the rest of humanity, because they’re trying to simplify their lives. Relationships and possessions feel like a burden to them, holding them back from the inner wealth they’re seeking. So, aside from the clothes on their back and a few other essentials, they leave behind all else. Explorers, in preparation for their risky voyages, think more carefully about what it is they want to take, selecting the most vital equipment. Leaving behind luxuries, they too are making an attempt at simplicity.
In a similar vein, whether we fully realize this or not, when we became initiated, we too made a commitment to try and lead a simple life in order to stengthen our efforts in meditation. Maharaj Jagat Singh advised us to eat less, sleep less, and talk less. Maharaj Charan Singh often said that we only need four things in life: food, fuel to keep warm, shelter and clothes. After securing these, we have only to attend to meditation. This advice may seem somewhat anachronistic to the modern lifestyle, but Baba Ji asks us to think about our priorities in life. He explains that there is nothing inherently wrong in being ambitious and working hard to secure material comforts. However, he makes us question the degree to which we have achieved the right balance – to what extent are we desiring more than earning our daily bread and, perhaps, compromising our first priority, which is to attend to meditation and to create the conditions supporting this?
The purpose of life is to return to our true home and, for this journey, we already have what we need – our existence. The privilege of being granted a human birth in which the soul has a chance to realize itself, is all we need. Everything else is just luxury. We certainly don’t need all the furniture, clothes, jewellery, apps, books or whatever else may be our personal penchant. As satsangis we don’t have to renounce these objects outwardly – it really depends on our circumstances – but we should try not to be possessed by them, to not let them compromise our spiritual practice. Like the ascetics and the explorers who manage to survive effectively and efficiently with very little paraphernalia, we have to travel as lightly as possible to reach that separate space within.
Once we’ve created the two-and-a-half hours of physical separation from the world, naturally, the Masters want us to make the best use of it. They want us to experience that space fully, which means we can’t let ourselves become weighed down by mental baggage. Thoughts and feelings from the previous day keep the mind tied to the outer rather than the inner realm. Our spiritual survival depends on learning to let go of all our joys and concerns, focusing instead on what’s really important – learning to still the mind. At first, this may not seem possible. We struggle with a mind that is constantly trying to be anywhere – anywhere please! – rather than where it is actually meant to be, here in the present, at the eye centre.
Learning to still the mind is the biggest challenge we have to face. Like the yogis and ascetics living in their respective places of escape, we have to learn how to survive in our own individual desert. This involves training ourselves to be self-reliant. In other words, learning to love the silence and stillness of the desert, resisting all thoughts and emotions related to the material world. It also involves identifying ourselves with spirit (Shabd) and relying only on spirit. This is our true identity and we can only rediscover it in the desert, that is, when we are able to achieve physical and mental separation from the world and, in that separation, are able to contact the Shabd form of the Master.
For this to occur, most of us will need to spend a long time in the desert, some of which we may experience as unpleasant. We may find ourselves literally existing in a gap, a no-man’s-land where we’re no longer fully involved in the world, but neither are we fully present with the Master. The Masters advise us to exploit this discomfort as it represents our loneliness, the yearning of our soul to return home, which, paradoxically, it can only do by spending more time in solitude and stillness.
During our long period in the desert, we may encounter many temptations. Perhaps the most insidious is to approach meditation expecting some kind of result. In so doing, there is a risk we could be tempted into finding fault with Sant Mat or the Master if our efforts do not bring immediate satisfaction or yield outcomes in the form we envisaged that they would. Yet another temptation is to pretend that the Master will do all the work and we have only to sit there. This is not what is meant by leaving everything to the Lord. We must make the effort to control our mind in meditation, as our effort is the catalyst for invoking his grace.
Eventually, by constantly cultivating that gap between us and the outside world through meditation, we will learn to live in our desert with contentment. We will feel freer and more buoyant, knowing that with each repetition of simran, we are truly on our way home.