From Form to Formless
Many of us, even those who have comfortable lives, interesting jobs and supportive families can have a sense that there is something missing in life – a gap. We make the mistake of thinking that this gap can be filled by worldly things, but no material goods or relationships can appease the deep, ancient thirst coming from within our being.
This thirst is the call of the soul, yearning to return to its divine source. It’s like a water drop that belongs in the sea. The drop may travel thousands of miles from the mountain top before joining the ocean. Similarly, the soul has no rest until it finds its true home. One of Maharaj Charan Singh’s last statements to his sangat was, “May your love of the form culminate in the love for the formless”. This sentence provides a clue to the purpose of our existence. The “form” the Master refers to is the physical person of the Master, loved by his disciples, while the “formless” refers to the Shabd. The physical form of the Master is actually a manifestation of the inner Shabd.
When both the Guru and disciple are in the human form we have hit the jackpot. For it is only then that we can learn and be instructed at our level on the journey inwards towards the inner light. It is the journey of a lifetime. In a letter, Hazur Maharaj Ji writes:
The main purpose of life is to realize God. This privilege, the Lord has bestowed only on human beings. The human body is the top rung of the ladder of creation. From here we can either drop down to lower species or we can go back to the Father and escape from the cycle of birth and death.
Ravidas, the cobbler saint writes, “For myriads of births have I been separated from you. O Lord, this birth is dedicated to thee.” So this human form is coveted by many souls. To make best use of being human we must value the body’s real purpose, which is to take us beyond material forms. The journey of Surat Shabd Yoga will lead us to the divine within the human body by putting us in touch with the spiritual, celestial sound and light within.
In Hindu marriages it is a custom for the groom to give the bride a necklace called the mangal sutra. The meaning of mangal is ‘holy’ or ‘auspicious’ and sutra means ‘a thread’. The gift of Nam at the time of initiation is like a holy thread that weaves itself into our entire life. It supports the fabric of our being. It guides us within so that we can transcend the body and be drawn into the life of the spirit – in other words, move from reliance on forms to appreciation of the formless. During initiation the disciple is taught five holy names which he or she will repeat in meditation. In this way the disciple’s soul is connected with the divine and embarks on an inner journey towards the Lord.
When we human beings take a good look at ourselves, we have to acknowledge that we are not very far removed from animals. All physical matter consists of a number of elements which are shared by the various species of life. The difference between the human being and the animal is the fifth element, ether, which is absent in animals and all other species. This element is also known as the power of discrimination, the power to be able to discern whether something is leading us closer to the light or away into the darkness. It is this fifth element that gives the human being the capacity to perceive the divine. But perhaps we should ask ourselves whether the animal within us still requires some taming? What happens to animals which are not trained? They run wild! This is the state in which we find our minds, running wild in this world.
When we take seriously to the spiritual path, initially our entire effort has to be towards training this mind. So the saints have laid out four guiding principles which assist us:
The first principle is that of observing a pure vegetarian diet, avoiding meat, fish, fowl, eggs, or any derivatives of these. Spiritually speaking, the consumption of vegetable life incurs less karmic load than the ingestion of animal products. Naturally the idea is to lighten our karmas as opposed to increasing them. This spiritual journey is best travelled lightly!
The second principle is that of abstinence from alcohol and mind-altering drugs. These substances paralyze our sense of discrimination so that under their influence we do indeed act as mere animals, not human beings.
Thirdly, we are to earn our own living and lead a sound moral life. In essence, we should be honest in all our dealings, respecting others and treating them fairly. Sexual relationships should take place only within the framework of marriage. Each person will no doubt have their own obstacle course of karmic lessons and moral dilemmas to navigate through. Our power of discrimination will continually be sharpened as we learn to decipher what is helping us on our way and what is a hindrance.
The fourth principle is a daily two and a half-hour meditation practice, as taught by the living Master or his appointed representative at the time of initiation. The first part of this is simran or the repetition of the holy names with the aim of focussing our attention at the eye centre. The second part consists of bhajan, or listening to the celestial sound.
The first three principles create a disciplined life for this human form of ours and the fourth is our homework to take us on our way, far beyond form, to the formless. It is in the practice of these principles that the relationship between Satguru and the disciple deepens, giving us the opportunity to become better humans and to channelize our love and energy toward the divine. Meditation is a grounding and anchoring factor, awakening us to our real purpose. It is a panacea for all ailments, the medication that tames the mind.
But it’s not easy. This world of illusion constantly captivates the mind, for the senses are never satiated. We are always hankering after more more and more! More power, more beauty, more money and, before we know it, the clever mind has trapped our attention and stolen our precious time and energy. Saints constantly remind us to attend to meditation.
Once a disciple is initiated, the journey is a joint responsibility. The Satguru’s responsibility is to initiate and guide the soul back home. The disciple’s responsibility is to mould his or her life around the Sant Mat teachings. The Masters always keep their end of the bargain. The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we keep ours? The Lord waits patiently for us at the eye centre. Do we show up?
One tool that assists in creating the atmosphere for meditation by keeping the mind focused is to do simran during our daily activities. If we punctuate the day with simran it will prevent the attention from spreading out. Before long, the practice of simran will become automatic. Then every moment of the day becomes sacred in the remembrance of the beloved Master. Each moment becomes charged with spiritual energy and vibrancy.
The Master also emphasizes the importance of our attitude – that lens through which we view life. James Allen writes in As a Man Thinketh, “Man is the master of thought, the moulder of character”. He goes on to tell us, “Just as a gardener cultivates his plot, keeping it free from weeds and growing the flowers and fruits which he requires, so may a man tend the garden of his mind, weeding out all the wrong, useless, and impure thoughts and cultivating toward perfection the flowers and fruits, of right, useful and pure thoughts.”
Good attitude is like a muscle. When we exercise it and use it, we strengthen it. If we do not use it, we lose it. The mind becomes negative because of the negative, downward pull of the world. We are trying to rise above that.
One of the most helpful attitudes to cultivate is humility. Maharaj Sawan Singh writes in Philosophy of the Masters, Vol. III, “In order to be deserving of the Lord’s grace we have to empty the heart of vainglory for, unless a vessel is empty, it can contain nothing.” Meditation, done with humility, is the emptying of the vessel.
On the subject of humility, there is a well-known story about a king who had a beloved minister or vazir, a man of very humble origins. Being jealous of this close relationship, the other ministers waited for an opportunity to bring the vazir down. Watching him closely, they noticed that every day he used to enter his room and lock it behind him. He spent a considerable amount of time there before returning. Eager to discredit the vazir, the ministers convinced the king that he must be stealing from him. So the king ordered the vazir’s room to be opened and checked. To everyone’s surprise, all they could find there were some old tattered clothes. When called to give account of himself, the vazir quietly said that he entered the room daily and held his old clothes as a reminder of where he had come from. He was a truly humble man who didn’t want to be fooled by the trappings of success.
All religious paths value the quality of humility and all true mystics demonstrate it. At the Louvre in Paris there is a painting by the sixteenth-century Italian artist Tintoretto. It shows Jesus Christ at the ‘last supper’, his final meal with his disciples before the crucifixion. What is special about the subject matter is that Christ is bending down, washing the feet of his disciples.
How can we grow this quality of humility within ourselves? One golden opportunity that we have been given is that of seva, because in working together in the service of the sangat we gradually learn to overcome the powerful ego and transcend some of the demands of our limited, and limiting, human form.
If we look at our lives, we can see them as a pipe or conduit. Our job, once initiated, is to keep the pipe clean and clear by standing up to the ego and stepping aside from ourselves. It’s then that God, the formless, can flow through us.The Persian mystic Hafiz says, “I am the hole in a flute that the Master’s breath moves through. Listen to this music.” In that hole, that nothingness, we find the Lord.
Let’s not waste another moment. While we are charged with the spiritual love and grace of the Master, let’s make the journey, channelizing our devotion to his form to help us transform into the formless.
If He is in sight wherever you look,
why cast a blind eye
when it comes to yourself?
The Real said to you
I’m wherever you turn–
So why don’t you take
a closer look at yourself?
Dara Shikoh in Loves Alchemy