Let us accept the invitation, ever-open, from the Stillness, taste its exquisite sweetness, and heed its silent instruction.
Let him withdraw once a day at least, not only from the world's outer activities but also from his own inner conflicts.
In these periods of retreat we are to live with Principles, to get our minds cleansed and hearts pure, to straighten the crooked thoughts and to be where hurry and pressure are not.
Such a retreat is not to be regarded as a holiday, although it accidentally serves that purpose too, but as a way of life. It is not just a means of filling idle time or of inertly resting in an interval between activities, but is a creative endeavour to transmute oneself and one's values.
To practise retreat in the philosophical manner is very different from the escapist manner. In the first case, the man is striving to gain greater mastery over self and life. In the second case, he is becoming an inert slacker, losing his grip on life.
What philosophy prescribes is neither a life solely given up to monastic retreat nor a life entirely spent in active affairs, but rather a sensible and proportioned combination of the two, a mixture in which the first ingredient necessarily amounts to less than the second.
Wisdom demands balance. Yet the modern man leads an unbalanced life. He is engaged in ceaseless activity, whether of work or pleasure, without the counterbalance of quiet repose and inner withdrawal. His activity is alright in its place, but it should be kept there, and should not overrun these precious moments when he ought to take counsel of his higher being. Hence the periodic practice of mental quiet is a necessity, not a luxury or hobby. It is called by the Chinese esoteric school "cleansing the mind."
If these occasional retirements from the world benefit him, if he comes out of them with a stronger will and a clearer mind and a calmer heart, if they enable him to collect his thoughts about deeper matters and to gather his forces for the higher life, then it would be foolish to dub this as escapism.
If he is to find the highest in himself, a man can best begin this search by retiring to the country and by working at some occupation where he does not have to fight selfishly and compete fiercely with others. By thus working less ambitiously and living more plainly, he will have a better chance to cultivate the tender plant of aspiration. By thus separating himself from the agitated atmosphere of cities, what he loses in outer fortune he will gain in inner fortune. Yet, if he faithfully follows his ideals, he will find that the same inner voice which prompted him to dwell apart will at times urge him to return for a while also and learn the missing part of his lesson. Most of the needful lessons of life can be learnt in obscure retreat, in small rural communities, but not all. The others are to be gained only in the large bustling cities and societies of men.
Because most of us have to pass our lives on this earth and in human society, we cannot travel the fugitive way. We cannot enter monasteries or sit in ashrams. And because some of us prefer philosophy to escapism we do not want to do so. For we believe that the real thing ascetics seek escape from is not the world, not society, but themselves; that our chief work in life is to remake ourselves. When we go into occasional and limited retreat we do so to quieten the mind, to detach the heart, to extend our perspectives, and to reflect upon life--not to run from it and squat the years idly away.
He who lives a noble life in the midst of the world's business is superior to him who lives a noble life in the midst of a monastery.
We need to take these occasional retreats to cleanse ourselves inwardly, to find fresh strength and gather new inspiration, to study ourselves, meditate, and understand truth.
There is a real need to balance our extreme tendency to activism with something of quietism, to offset our excessive doing with deeper being.
The fast pace of modern living and the busy clamour of modern cities prevent us from meeting ourselves. We have to sit down as if we were in the desert all alone surrounded by silence and slow the pace of thoughts until in the gaps between them we begin to see who the thinker is. But we must give it time, we must be patient. It is not out there right in front, but hidden deep inside. Inside there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel.
How many of us find ourselves worn out by the physical anxieties, the frequent nerve-tensions, and the jittery tumultuousness of our period! We tend to get entrapped in our own activities, to multiply them by the dozen, to be everlastingly busy with this and that. We are, in a sense, the unwitting victims of our surface-life, the unconscious slaves of its activities and desires, the dancing marionettes of its interests and possessions. There is no real free movement of our wills, only an apparent one. We have only to look at the faces of the men and women in our big cities to realize how desolate of spiritual repose most of them are. We have become so extroverted that it has become unnatural to turn the mind upon itself, artificial to direct the attention inwards for a while. All this causes us to miss the most important values, keeps us on the plane of being merely higher thinking and mating animals and little more.
Everyone wants to live. Few want to know how to live. If people permit work to take up so much of their time that they have none left for their devotional prayer or mystical meditation or metaphysical study, they will be as culpable for this wastage of life as they will be if they permit transient pleasures to do so. Those who have no higher ideal than to chase after amusement and to seek after pleasure may look upon religious devotion as senseless, metaphysical studies as boring, mystical meditations as time-wasting, moral disciplines as repulsive. Those who have no such inner life of prayer and meditation, study and reflection, will necessarily pay, in emergencies or crises, the high price of their hopeless extroversion. The needs of external life are entitled to be satisfied in their place, but they are not entitled to dominate a man's whole attention. The neglected and unnoticed needs of internal life must also receive their due. It is quite true that man must eat, find shelter, wear clothes, and amuse himself. And it is also true that if a fortunate fate has not relieved him of the necessity, he must work, trade, scheme, or gamble to get the money for these things. But all this is insufficient grounds for him to pass through life with no other thoughts in his head than those of bodily needs or financial strivings. There is still room there for another kind of thought, for those concerning the mysterious elusive and subtle thing that is his divine soul. The years are passing and he cannot afford such a wastage of time, cannot afford the luxury of being so extroverted at the cost of having lost touch with the inner life.
It is bad enough to be a sick person, but it is worse to be sick and believe you are well. Yet the complete extroverts are in this condition, because they regard complete extroversion as the proper state for normal healthy living! The fact is that to let ourselves be swept into the whirlpool of unending act without intervals of inner rest and physical quiet is not only unworthy but also unhealthy. Such a complete suppression of the inner life and such a complete immersion in the outer upsets Nature's balance and may express itself in disease. Unfamiliar and irksome, unpractical and inconvenient as it mostly is, exercise in meditation does not attract the modern man. In former times it was a kind of pleasant duty. In present times it is a kind of bitter medicine. Yet his need of it still remains, indeed it is even larger than the medieval man's need. The more we suffer from the psychic and physical sicknesses bred by our incessant extroversion and by our disequilibrated materialism, the more does it become imperative to swallow this valuable medicine. Here we ought to be guided by the importance of effecting a cure rather than by the importance of pleasing our taste. Meditation provides men with a sanctuary from the world's harassments, and those who would not enter this sanctuary of their own accord are being driven by the harsh experience of contemporary life itself to do so. They are being forced to seek for new sources of healing peace. They need it greatly. There is only one safe retreat for the harassed emotions in these turbulent times and that is within themselves, within the beautiful serenity which the mystical can find at will. The world will inevitably witness a large-scale reaction against its own excessive extroversion and an inward search for mental detachment will then arise. For it there is waiting the message and the panacea of modern meditation.
Meditation must be restored to its rightful place in the human program. Only those who have tasted its wonder know how bare, how poor, is a life from which it is always absent. Only those who have become expert in the art know the major pleasure of lying back on its velvet couch and letting their burdens fall from them. The benefits of meditation apply both to mundane life and to spiritual seeking. Think what it means to be able to give our mental apparatus a complete rest, to be able to stop all thoughts at will, and to experience the profound relief of relaxing the entire being--body, nerves, breath, emotions, and thoughts! Those whose nerves cannot endure the extreme tension of modern existence will find ample healing by resorting to mental quiet.
The need to practise meditation is an obligatory one upon us as beings who have become conscious that we are human and not merely animal beings. Yet few men ever recognize this obligation. Most men either do not perceive its importance or, perceiving it, they try to establish an alibi by suggesting to themselves that they are too busy fulfilling their other obligations and consequently have no time for meditation. But the fact is that they are too lazy to disengage themselves from the common state of complacent indifference towards the soul. We must strike a healthy balance between work and retirement, activity and contemplation, pleasure and reflection, and not remain victims of prevailing conventions. A few minutes invested every day in meditation practice will more than pay for themselves. We must not only introduce it as a regular feature of the human day but also as an important one. We must reorganize our daily lives so that time can be found for the leisurely cultivation of the soul through study, reflection, and meditation. Such periodical intervals of withdrawnness from the endless preoccupation with external affairs are a spiritual necessity. We must learn to bring in the new factor of introversion and turn inwards, tapping our finer reflective resources and liberating our profounder possibilities. To know that man has a sacred soul and to know this fact with invulnerable certitude, is the first reward of right prayer and philosophic meditation. The true soul of man is hidden and concealed from his senses and from his thoughts. But it is possible for him by these methods to awaken a higher faculty--intuition--whereby he may reach, know, and be lovingly received by this soul.
We daily dissipate our mental energies and throw our thoughts to the fickle winds. We debauch the potent power of Attention and let it waste daily away into the thousand futilities that fill our time.
The ego ceaselessly invents one "duty" after another to keep him so involved in activities, often trivial, that he is never still enough to attend to the Overself's presence and voice within. Even many so-called spiritual duties are its invention: they are not asked of him by the Overself.
Because all his meditation exercises can succeed only to the extent that he succeeds in becoming utterly relaxed, the importance of this ability must be noted.
We truly relax from strains and strivings only when we relax in the inward stillness of the divine presence. Silently to declare the metaphysical truths about our personal life, quietly to affirm them in the midst of our active life, and deliberately to recognize them above the swirl of our emotional life is to achieve true repose.
It is wiser to go to the fountainhead, to the source of all energies directly. There our fatigued mind or body can find its most life-giving recuperation.
The stress of modern existence has made the need for regular mental rest not merely advisable, but vital. Unless our excessive external activity is counter-balanced by a little inward orientation, we shall be devastated by neurasthenic disease.
The external segregation of spiritual aspirants for a whole lifetime is impracticable today. It is also undesirable. The ashram ideal suited a primitive society, but does not suit our complex one. What is really needed now is the establishment of "Houses of Retreat" where men of the world may pass a weekend, a week, or even a month, in a holy atmosphere under the helpful guidance of an experienced spiritual director.
Ashram existence fails to impose any real test of character other than childish ones. Exposure to the corrosive acids of the world's tensions and temptations, conflicts and perils, would soon test the unworldliness of an ashramite's character and soon show the real worth of his pious attainments. A monastic life which possesses no perils, struggles, and constructive activity also possesses no intrinsic value, no ultimate worth apart from the temporary rest it gives. It takes no risks but gains no prizes.
Having obtained a place where he may rest for a period, an environment suited to prayer and meditation, let him begin and end each day by a solemn silent call to the Overself for guidance, for enlightenment, and for help in overcoming the ego. Then let him give as much time as his capacity allows to meditation repeated twice and even thrice during the day.
The need today is for philosophic retreats rather than monastic communities, for semi-retirement from the world rather than complete abandonment of the world, for limited and temporary periods of relaxation from personal activities.
The true place of peace amid the bustle of modern life must be found within self, by external moderation and internal meditation.
Ram Gopal: "At many of the ashrams I visited in India I could plainly see that the vast majority of people milling around the central figure of the particular sage, all had the timid and cowardly expressions of escapists, running away from life. They were taking the easy way out by sitting at the feet of these holy ones. Such a negative attitude helped them merely to postpone what the true seeker faced boldly."
There is a need for spiritual retreats where laymen and laywomen, who do not wish to become monks or nuns, may come for a day or weekend or month or two, to search for truth, to study, and to meditate in an undistracting atmosphere.
There are some exceptions to this precept, of course. An old man, for instance, who feels he has done his principal work in life, is quite entitled to rest, to withdraw from the world and make his peace with God in solitude and repose.
The heart is my ashram. The higher self is the master who dwells within it.
The deepest solitudes do not always contain the divinest men. Renunciation of the world works most when it works in the heart, which unfortunately is not a visible thing. It is not always necessary to permit one's dress-suit to become covered with cobwebs in order to become a true devotee.
Alone and silent, with body and mind quiet, it would be unlikely and even difficult to become nervous, unstable, fidgety, and restless.
But a man cannot profit by this lonelier life, nor find it pleasurable, unless he has more inner reserves than most others or unless he actively seeks to gain them.
While he is still struggling to attain the light, the larger his acquaintance with people and the more they crowd his life, the less time and chance he has to know and find himself--if his relationship with them is the ordinary egoistic one. If it is not, but involves rendering them some sort of altruistic service which thins down his ego, the result will be better and more favourable to this purpose. Even so, it is an unbalanced existence and a day will come when he will have to take a vacation from them and make solitude and time for his own inner need of meditation, reflection, or study.
It is not because he finds the company of most people disagreeable that he seeks solitude, that he separates himself from society, not because he is soured, vinegary and cynical in his attitude toward them, but because this inner work requires intense uninterrupted undisturbed and undistracted concentration.
There is only one real loneliness and that is to feel cut off from the higher power.
There is a vast difference between idle morbidly introspective solitude and the inwardly active creative solitude advocated here.
"Let him be devoted to that quietude of heart which springs from within, let him not drive back the ecstasy of contemplation, let him look through things, let him be much alone." Such is Buddha's counsel to the student of the higher life.
The man who does not learn how to be alone with himself cannot learn how to be alone with God.
A man has to make his own inner solitude wherever he goes.
There is always some feeling of mystery in the deep silent haunts of the forest. There is always some eerie sense of strangeness in its leaf-strewn shady paths. There is great age in its green bowers and mossy trunks, grave peace in its secluded recesses. There is great beauty in the tiny flowers set on their couches of grass and in the cheerful song which comes down from the boughs. It is a satisfying place, this home of dignity and decrepitude, this forest.
The wise will turn to the mountains for rest as they will return to them from the ends of this earth when they are world-weary. For they are ancient souls of many births and their Methusalean propensities will find fit neighbour in those aged heights. And then they will sit upon the craggy stones and gaze up at the peaks' defiant heads and suck in peace as a bee sucks the pollen from a flower.
They whose emotions can respond to the grandeur and sublimity of Nature in all her manifold expressions, in forest and mountain, river and lake, in sea and sky, and the beauty of flowers, are not materialists even though they may so call themselves. Unconsciously they offer their devotion to the Divine Reality, even though they may call it by some other name.
Saint John of the Cross, whenever he stayed at the monastery of Iznatoraf, would climb to a tiny attic room in the belfry and there remain for a long time looking out fixedly through a tiny window at the silent valley. When he was prior of the Hermitage of El Calvario, in Andalusia, one of the exercises he taught the monks was to sit and contemplate where there was a view of open sky, hills, trees, fields, and growing plants and to call on the beauty of these things to praise God. We know from his writings that he made imageless contemplation the last stage in all such exercises.
The evening sunfall brings its own beauty, declaims its own poetry. It is worth the waiting in the short period before Nature's holy pause, when one can share her peace with one's soul, her mystery with one's mind, and feel her kinship with one's self. As the dusk deepens there is a shift of standpoint and basic truths come into sight or become more clear. The heart and its feelings are affected, too--purified, ennobled, enriched.
As he gazes, the more attention gets concentrated, the more he sinks into finer and finer thought, honouring not only the visible sun outside but also the invisible soul inside.
I let time unfold and pass away into its source as, minute after minute, in the gathering dusk, the mountains slowly vanish, the room too, eyes close, contemplation ends, the Void takes over, and there is no one left to report.