Discipline and Spirituality
What is the place of discipline in following a spiritual path? Sant Mat can be seen as a path requiring tremendous discipline. We hear that it will be a ‘lifelong’ struggle with the mind. This is a little worrying when for some people adhering to a vegetarian diet or giving up alcohol can seem to require great discipline, let alone meditating for two and a half hours every day. But let’s be clear-headed about this and remind ourselves how much effort and dedication many of us put into making a living or looking after our families, or getting a degree; why, then, should we expect to attain self-realization without putting at least as much effort into our spiritual development?
However, here, as in many other aspects of Sant Mat, we must take care not to oversimplify what we hear or view it from a narrow perspective. Most of us tend to equate discipline and struggle not just with effort but with tension, stress and fatigue. Maharaj Charan Singh, on the other hand, often used to say that we should lead a relaxed life and meditate with a relaxed mind; we therefore have to ask ourselves what kind of lifelong struggle it is that can be undertaken in a relaxed way? It would seem that there must be ‘right’ effort (relaxed, peaceful, harmonious) and ‘wrong’ effort (stressful, tiring, frustrating), and we probably have experience of both, not just in meditation but also in seva and in our daily lives.
If we accept that effort in meditation or seva can be effective or ineffective, then clearly just putting in as much time and effort as possible may not necessarily be useful. There may be a sense in which more time and effort is a good thing, but if taken to extremes it can be quite egocentric and destructive, leading to the neglect of work or family for example, or causing friction with others. If we can be more discriminating and see the bigger picture, then our effort may be more productive. Maybe that is why the Masters have explained that we should meditate with a relaxed mind and why they have emphasized the importance of harmony in seva.
There are two aspects to ‘discipline’. Firstly, there is discipline imposed from outside by others, which one dictionary defines as “controlled and orderly behaviour resulting from training.” Secondly, there is self-discipline, which is defined as “self-imposed controlled and orderly behaviour.”
When we follow Sant Mat, we do so purely out of choice – not compulsion – and therefore we can say that the way of life is self- disciplined. To assist us in achieving this self-discipline, the Master presents us with various examples of order and obedience, such as that of soldiers who must obey the orders of their commander. In a letter in Divine Light Maharaj Charan Singh writes: “Before enlisting in the army, it is open to a person to join it or not. But after enlistment one’s duty is to obey the orders of one’s general and to remain under military discipline.” But the Master then closes the letter with a further sentence. He says: “The mind should be trained to acquire the habit of obeying your orders.” In other words, we are the ones in control – we are the general. The Master is the loving mentor. He doesn’t judge, accuse or punish but constantly offers encouragement, as in the following letter, also from Divine Light:
I am sorry to learn that you find it difficult to keep yourself in the Sant Mat discipline … one should never be disheartened over falls and failures…. Buck up and ever keep the true purpose of human life before you.
The Master also provides us with needed reminders; he asks us to remember the alternative to a life without discipline. When, in Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II someone asks the Master, “I’ve heard that there’s so much pain involved in the Sant Mat path as far as denial of worldly things. Can this be a path of joy also?” Maharaj Ji challenges the notion that discipline is joyless by replying:
Well, you mean to say that those people who do not follow the path are happy? Go to all the mental asylums and find whether they’re happy or not. People are just miserably living in comfort, nothing else. Those who deny themselves the pleasures of the world … are much happier than those who become slaves of the pleasures of the world.
External discipline is also relevant to us as satsangis, as we are not just a loose collection of people following an individual spiritual discipline but – in so far as we wish to make use of the outward arrangements that are made for us – we are members of an organization too. The organization has the responsibility to manage finance, properties, the allocation of seva and so forth. Such a structure cannot work without its own discipline, as practical decisions have to be made and implemented.
At a Question & Answer session with Maharaj Charan Singh, someone once began a query by saying that the previous night Hazur had said that we should “obey the sevadars”. But before the questioner could get any further, Hazur interrupted by remarking that he had not said “obey” – he had said “co-operate with”. Let’s consider the definition of these words: to ‘obey’ is to do what one is told to do; to ‘co-operate with’ is the action or process of working together to the same end. ‘Co-operation’ often requires some give and take and negotiation to arrive at the best way forward; it is not simply blind obedience. Co-operation demands humility and mutual respect. In Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III, Maharaj Charan Singh, discussing seva, advises:
Think humbly: this body doesn’t belong to me – even this belongs to the Father, even this belongs to the Master. Do not use your body as your own. Use it as if it belongs to your Master, and then you won’t ever do evil deeds.
The Master is advising us to observe a very loving mental discipline whilst carrying out our seva, and it is actually only this attitude which will help us to co-operate with each other.
This is where our spiritual discipline (the meditation, the way of life) informs and supports the discipline we need in our seva. In seva, as in other organizations, all kinds of dilemmas can arise and it may be very difficult to know what to do. We all have a limited perspective so we will make mistakes. The most important thing to keep in mind is that co-operation or harmony is essential.
Both outward and inward discipline are needed on this path; in Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, Maharaj Charan Singh reminds us of the value placed on discipline when, acknowledging our struggles, he says:
You see, if the student is very obedient in class, and very disciplined, the master, the professor, is always anxious to pull him through with one excuse or another…. Let us at least be disciplined and good and obedient enough so that we can invoke his grace to get through.
If we felt love in our hearts at all times and our actions flowed from that, then of course there would be no need to talk about harmony, co-operation or discipline. Everything would just flow on the basis of mutual love and understanding. In Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, someone asks: “Maharaj Ji, how is discipline connected with love, and what is the difference between discipline and love?”
Well sister, to remain in the Father’s love actually is to remain in his discipline. To submit ourselves to him – that is to remain in the discipline or to remain in his love. Anything which takes us away from his love makes us undisciplined, so whatever keeps us within his love, within his devotion, that is a discipline for us that we have to follow.
Both meditation and seva need the initial application of some self- discipline and this has to be applied whether the impetus comes from love or from fear of the consequences if we don’t apply it. Maharaj Charan Singh says:
If we are not disciplined out of love, then we have to be disciplined out of fear. Mystics sometimes tell both sides … [they depict] the misery of this world, of this creation, and they also fill us with love and devotion for the Father.
Once we set the ball rolling by accepting the need for spiritual discipline, our understanding has the opportunity to gradually mature so that our efforts are applied intelligently. As this happens, and we grow in love, the discipline we follow becomes as natural as breathing – the automatic result of experiencing the Father’s love for us and our capacity to respond to him in meditation, in daily life, and in seva.