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Row, Row, Row your Boat

Many mystics have said that life is a dream. They almost never say it is like a dream – they say it is a dream. For example, Maharaj Charan Singh Ji said:

This whole life is a dream… This life is nothing but a dream, and in a dream everything looks real. We feel, we cry, we laugh – we only realize it’s a dream when we wake up.1

There’s a lot going on in the world right now, so it’s quite a big call to say that it’s all a dream. Disease, war, lost jobs, homelessness, extreme weather events… Are these really all just part of a dream? Well, let’s examine what we mean when we say something happened ‘only in a dream.’

Let’s say I am having a lovely dream that I am in the ocean, swimming amongst a school of turtles. Suddenly one of them bites off the end of my index finger.
If I wake up, I might automatically look at my hand and be relieved to see that the finger is still there. Whatever happened in the dream didn’t actually affect me. It was only a dream. You could say that the finger in the dream didn’t actually belong to me.

If this life is a dream then we must also be able to wake up. Mystics say that when we awaken, we will realize the ‘real us.’ And when we know who we really are, we’ll realize that almost all of the things we thought were so important in life didn’t actually belong to us. When the body dies, something continues: the real me is revealed. And that means even the body didn’t really belong to me. It’s as unreal as the finger in the turtle dream. Similarly, everything that had a relationship to that body is part of the dream. Those things don’t last. They don’t stay with us when we wake up to our true nature as spiritual beings. In that sense, all of these things and events and relationships are unreal. They are all part of a dream.

Happily, this body doesn’t actually have to die for us to have this experience. We can die while living. The ‘real us’ can withdraw from our bodies through the practice of meditation and the grace of the Lord. If we diligently follow the teacher’s instructions, we can all wake up from the dream. We can walk around awake, fully aware of what is dream and what is reality.

This means that, while engaging in our spiritual practice, we can lead a normal life. We don’t have to run away from our jobs or families; we don’t have to sit in caves or jungles or go to any other extreme. We don’t have to give away all of our possessions, since our so-called possessions don’t belong to us anyway!

Maharaj Sawan Singh Ji once wrote to his own teacher, Baba Jaimal Singh Ji, proposing that he would renounce everything for the sake of meditation. His teacher wrote back that he had misunderstood the teachings.

[The home of the Lord] is just behind this veil, my son, it is not far away. So why get perturbed? Rest assured, you will go home. You write that you will leave both home and service in order to do [meditation]. What is yours in your home, my son, and what is yours in your service, and what is yours in your wealth? Just think a little. In all these, what is there to let go of, and what is there to hang onto? This is merely a juggler’s trick. The world, my son, is a dream.2

When things are stressing us out, we often tell ourselves to ‘let it go’. Baba Jaimal Singh Ji here takes it to another level. He says that there’s nothing to let go of, since none of it belongs to us anyway. We just need to be receptive to that reality, to experience how relaxing and joyful it is to live in that reality. It makes the wisdom of this old nursery rhyme seem truly profound:

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.
Life is but a dream.

We can take life gently. There’s no need to struggle to paddle upstream. We can just go with the flow. Life is but a dream, but most of us are still asleep. We still feel that we are the doers, and that we are the ones making choices. But we can make our choices and perform our duties merrily, rowing gently down the stream.

One choice we can make is to follow a mystic’s instructions for waking up. Of course, that requires some faith that the teacher knows what he or she is talking about! Maharaj Charan Singh Ji puts it like this:

Let’s say there’s a piece of hard substance, and it is covered with a lot of dirt. You think it is just another piece of stone and somebody tells you, “Wash it with soap.” Slowly and slowly a diamond will reveal itself. The diamond was always there but due to the dirt around it you did not know that the diamond was in this dirt. You just took it as a piece of dirt. So if you follow that person who told you to wash the dirty stone and have faith in that person and go on washing the stone, with patience you will be able to remove all the dirt and get the diamond out of it. It will shine, it will have the price of a diamond. That person has not added anything into that dirt. They have told you the method and you have been able to believe in them and you get that diamond. So everything is within us; nothing is coming from outside. The saints teach us and we put faith in them, and with practice we are able to see that light over which there were so many coverings before, that light which was always there.3

Sometimes it is a matter of following instructions, with or without understanding the reason for the instruction. Someone once asked Hazur why marijuana was forbidden on this path. Although Hazur would often answer a question like this by explaining logical reasons, this time he answered very forcefully:

Tomorrow you will ask me why eggs are forbidden, why drinks are forbidden, why meat is forbidden. You would like me to start from the ‘ABC’ now? Hmm? Have you started taking [marijuana]? And you are trying to justify it? Forbidden is forbidden. There’s no ‘why’. Even if we know the why, it will not convince us unless we are strict with ourselves, unless we keep ourselves disciplined. Anything forbidden is forbidden. There’s no question of why. There’s no reason for it. Reasons are only to satisfy the intellect, just to get support for abstaining from those things. Otherwise, a soldier, once he joins the army, he has no reason to refuse. He has no right to refuse. He never asks why. We have taken a certain discipline on ourselves, and we have to abide by it.4

He’s saying that once we have made a commitment, if we have faith in the teacher who said to scrub the dirt off the diamond, then our job is to scrub according to the instructions he gives us. We’ll understand all the reasons when we’ve achieved a higher perspective than we have now.

If we are about to have laser surgery for a life-threatening illness, we can’t reasonably demand that the doctor explain the advanced physics of the procedure first. She has studied under other eminent doctors. She appears to be truly proficient and has many satisfied patients whom we have met. So once we’ve decided to have the procedure, we need to take some things on faith and follow the instructions given.

The atmosphere generated by satsang helps us sustain our commitment to following the instructions. ‘Sat’ means truth; ‘sang’ means association. So in a spiritual gathering we are attempting to associate with the truth. In this atmosphere we are away from all the bustle and noise of the world. Shielded from that bustle, we get a little stillness, and it becomes easier to follow the instructions with resolve, to tune in to the truth within. We begin to see the dream for what it is; we begin to reach for the reality. In that inspired frame of mind, we can get joy and peace from our meditation. That experience builds our faith in the power of this practice of meditation, and this prompts further practice. We get into a virtuous circle of faith, practice, and joy – leading to the next cycle of faith, practice and joy.

The challenge then comes that, as they say, ‘the path of true love never runs smooth.’ In everyone’s life there will be ups and downs. In fact, we need it to be this way. We should cherish whatever positivity we experience as a result of meditation, but we can’t chase after that same feeling next time. Otherwise, we will build up a concept, or an expectation, of what we want to get. And concepts and expectations are mental, not spiritual. We have to enter the circle of meditation with no expectations, with pure receptivity to the moment and to the grace of the giver. As Baba Ji says over and over again, we just have to sit. We just have to keep the vessel clean. Filling the vessel is not in our hands, so we can have no expectations or demands here.

Someone once asked Maharaj Charan Singh Ji: “Master, we seem to have high periods and low periods of spirituality. Is this a trick of the mind or is it part of our development?” He replied:

Sister, ups and downs in meditation do come. You call them high activity or low activity. Our meditation, our spiritual practice, is never smooth. Sometimes we feel that we have gone up, we have made progress. Sometimes we feel that we have fallen down. Ups and downs always come in meditation. That is also due sometimes to our past karmas and so many other things pulling us, which we do not consciously realize. Unconsciously they are affecting us. But we should not worry about the ups and downs. Gradually we have to steer upward.5

The questioner says that she sometimes felt she had direct contact with the power within, and then at other times felt so disturbed that she found it hard to even live with herself. Her main reason for asking the question, expressed with beautiful honesty, is that she just wanted to hear him saying she was doing it right. He lovingly replied: “Oh yes. You are definitely doing right. The sound is within every one of us, irrespective of anyone, so we need only concentrate at the eye centre, the thinking centre, to be in touch with that [inner] sound.”

She asks if “one just knows that eventually everything will be alright and one will understand?”

Yes, that is right. We should never sit in meditation with any excitement or with longing to see something at once, for then the mind gets frustrated and runs out. We should attend to meditation with an absolutely relaxed mind and just do our duty. When it comes, it just comes. Our excitement or our anxiety does not bring anything. It is the concentration that brings it; concentration with love and longing and his grace bring it. So when it has to come, it comes automatically.6

All this love and longing and concentration starts with building a habit. Waking up from this dream requires that we build a habit. The philosopher Will Durant summarized the essence of Aristotle’s teachings on ethics, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”7 Similarly, devotion is a habit. Concentration is a habit. If I am in the habit of checking my social media before bed, I’ll automatically reach for my phone at bedtime, even if I checked it five minutes before. If I am in the habit of having something sweet after dinner, I’ll automatically reach into the cupboard or fridge when the meal is over.

So, if we get into the habit of sitting in meditation at a particular time, whether our mind cooperates or not, whether our body cooperates or not, after a while it will be as automatic as brushing our teeth. We’ll automatically sit. We will have built a habit of devotion. We’ll feel weird and uneasy if we don’t sit.

The Sufi mystic poet, Jalal-al-Din Rumi, says that living in the dream of this world is like being in exile from our own home. Our effort to sit every day, bit by bit, gives us wings to fly home.

A call came to souls,
“How long will you stay there?
Come back to your original home.

Because nearness to Us
is your very essence and existence,
fly happily to Mount Qāf for you are a phoenix.

Water and clay [the body] are a heavy log tied to your feet.
Try to untie the log, bit by bit.

Travel back from exile – come home.
Be determined…”

God fashions your wings from your effort.8

  1. Spiritual Perspectives Vol. iii, Question 142, pp.96-97
  2. Spiritual Letters, 7th edition, Letter 69, p.110
  3. Spiritual Perspectives Vol. ii, Question 20, pp.13-14
  4. Spiritual Perspectives Vol. ii, Question 118, p.84
  5. Spiritual Perspectives Vol. ii, Question 357, p.267
  6. ibid
  8. Divān-e Shams-e Tabrizi (Selections), p.186