True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 7: The Importance of Being Alone

It is very difficult to have a clear conception of one’s purpose in life, and this is precisely the factor that goes to make for success in yoga. A hotchpotch mind is unfit for yoga. We are not dabbling in some confused activity when we take to spiritual life. There cannot be a more serious enterprise than taking to the spiritual path. While it is difficult to understand what it actually means, it is very easy to misunderstand it, misapply it, misconstrue it, and go headlong in a direction which one can mistake for the right move that one has to make.

A sincere disciple, a seeker, one day put a question to me: “If I have to enter the Absolute today, what sadhana should I practise?” While I appreciated the question very much, I also felt the seriousness that is involved in not only the question itself, but the background of the entire thought process in this connection. My answer to this question was at once: “You have to melt into liquid and become one with everything. This is the sadhana that you have to do if you want to enter the Absolute today.” But who is prepared to melt into liquid? We are hard as flint. Even flint is not as hard as we are. Our attachments are very severe; even iron chains are not as strong as our attachments. But we are self-deluded people, under the notion that we have no attachments. We are immersed in a quagmire, but are under the notion that we are walking along a beaten track which takes us straight to God.

The main sadhana to enter the kingdom of God is detachment—freedom from attachment. Nothing else is necessary. But freedom from attachment is something unknown to us. The great Patanjali propounds, in his yoga aphorisms, a gradual process of detachment from externals. Attachment is nothing but connection with externals, and we are connected in a thousand ways with externals. Our attachments are not in respect of one or two things, or a few things only. We are tethered with a network of multifarious relationships. A few of these are known to us consciously in our mind every day, but many of these are not known to us.

One of the essential conditions the seeker of yoga is called upon to bear in mind is ekantavasa, or sequestration, solitude. These days, wrong notions are driven into people’s minds by inexperienced teachers who say that we can be in the midst of a city and yet practise sadhana. Though this goes on very well and sounds fine as a theory and a doctrine, it is a total impossibility when we actually try to practise it. The ancient masters who said that solitude is necessary were not fools. Though in the end, in the consummation, it may be possible for us to find a solitary forest in the thick of New York City, consummation should not be identified with the beginning. That would be like putting the cart before the horse.

In this connection, I am reminded of a very homely analogy of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Fire consumes ghee. Any amount of ghee that we pour on fire will be burnt by the fire. Yes, this is a great truth, a fact known to everyone. But suppose we pour a mound of ghee over a spark of fire; will it burn the ghee? The fire itself will be extinguished. The fire should first become a huge conflagration. Then we can pour the entire fuel of the world into it, and it shall burn it to ashes. Our fire of aspiration will then be capable—only then, and not before—to burn all the dirt and dust of this world even if it is thrown upon it in huge heaps. But when we are only a struggling spark who has not been able to take even the first step in yoga, if the whole weight of the world is to sit upon us, what will happen? We cannot face it. We will be crushed to dust.

Hence, we should not, at the very outset, at the beginning itself, make the mistake of thinking that we are masters, that we can face the world. Even an Arjuna could not face the Kaurava forces. They were terrible powers. The world is not so simple as it appears to be. It is a fierce opponent before us, capable of turning us upside down at once if we are not careful about it.

Sri Aurobindo, the great yogi, was fond of saying that there are three processes in the practice of yoga: withdrawal, immersion, and rising up. These were his concepts of the three processes in the practice of yoga. In the beginning, we cannot immerse ourselves in God, though that is our final intention. We should not think, “I shall be in the middle of attractions, oppositions, etc., and then immerse myself in my spiritual objective.” In the beginning, abstraction, withdrawal, renunciation is necessary. Though withdrawal is not the ultimate aim of yoga, it is a very necessary part of yoga. Isolation is done even in medical treatment, though it does not mean that we have to be isolated forever, throughout our life. The purpose of isolation is to cure us of our illness, and when we are healthy, well, we can move among others.

The mind is accustomed to enjoyments through the senses. Enjoyment is what we are asking for and seeking every moment of our lives. We want pleasure, satisfaction, and we do not want any kind of pain or opposition. Our senses and our mind are used to an easy-going life, where we always yield to even the least pressure from the lower instincts within us. We take advantage of even the first opportunity that is given to us for enjoyment. If there is an opportunity for indulgence, we shall be the first to take advantage of that situation. We shall not stop to think, “Is it necessary for me? Why should I go to it? Is it necessary, or unnecessary?”  We think pleasures are never unnecessary; they are always necessary, and any amount of pleasure would be welcome. We will never say there is a surfeit of pleasure; such a thing can never happen. There has never been a time when we felt that satisfactions have gone beyond their limit, because they can never go beyond their limit. We have been brought up in such an atmosphere. We are born in such a condition, and we live through it.

How will it be possible for us to be renunciates, to withdraw ourselves from externals, when externals themselves are a part of our life? We live in a world of externals. We are externalised bodies, busybodies. Externality is the texture of our life. Parāñci khāni vyatṛṇat svayambhūḥ (Katha 2.1.1), says the Kathopanishad. The Creator Himself projected the senses outwardly, as it were, so that they can never think anything except in external terms. Our thoughts are externalised, perceptions are externalised, judgments are externalised, enjoyments are externalised. There is nothing else in this world except externality. The whole world of creation is a scene of externalisation, becoming more and more intense, and more and more complicated and involved; this is called samsara. But yoga is the reverse process, a movement along the return current.

The first thing that we have to do, therefore, is to find time to be alone. We were not born into this world with friends, with husbands, wives and children, with bank balances or relations of any kind. We were born naked, without a strip of cloth on our body, and with none to call our own; and this is also the very condition in which we leave the world. It is only in the middle that we make a lot of fuss under the notion that the whole world is ours. As we came, so we go. The truth is revealed when we are born, and also when we go. The untruth is in the middle, when we are completely muddled in our heads.

A great thinker and mystic once put it in a beautiful style: The path spiritual is the flight of the alone to the Alone. It is not a multitude going to God. Such a thing is unthinkable. Very important it is to remember that we are alone in this world even now. Even today, even at this very moment, we are alone.

We should not be under the impression we have got many friends around us. This is a false notion. The so-called friends and relations that we have around us in the form of human beings and possessions of various kinds are a false environment created around us to delude us and dupe us into the wrong path. These possessions, friends, relations, etc., are not going to help us when we are in a critical moment or in time of danger, because our relationship to people is artificial. Anything that is artificial will not last long. Our connection with other people in this world is not genuine, not natural, not organic; and, therefore, it cannot work when the time for it comes. Why is it so? It is because, to put it in a very philosophical jargon, the connection of a subject with an object is makeshift. It is a contrivance brought about for sensory perception and a false feeling of fulfilment, and for bringing about a sense of satisfaction to the ego-ridden individuality.

A subject cannot be connected to an object, because there is no means of connection. We have heard in logic that ‘A’ cannot be ‘B’, and ‘A’cannot be connected to ‘B’in any manner whatsoever; and if there is a means of connecting ‘A’ to ‘B’, ‘B’ ceases to be ‘B’; it will become a part of ‘A’. The very fact that we regard other people as ‘others’ shows that they are unrelated to us essentially. Otherwise, why do we regard them as others? Otherness is the feature which disconnects everything from everything else, and yet we are under the impression that we are all one total of friendliness, brotherhood, etc.

There are peculiar features in us, in every one of us, which can be manifest at any moment of time, and which can upset and destroy even the best friendship and relationship. I can behave with you, just now, in such an ugly manner that you would not like to see my face from tomorrow onwards. With all the regard that you have for me, I can behave with you in such an unwanted manner that you would not see me again. But, these things are not known to people; and even if they are known, they do not want to reveal them outside, for the purpose of what they call ‘getting on in the world’. There is no such thing as real friendship in this world. It is a misnomer. But we are caught in this net of a wrong notion, a foolish belief that the world will support us, help us, and that we have many things at our beck and call. Yoga wants to put an end to this false belief, and call a spade a spade, as they say.

The truth as it is must come out. The disease has to be dug out from its roots, and there is no use saying, “Everything is okay, everything is all right. The patient is improving.” He is not improving. We are making a false statement. He is preparing for his departure, though we say he is improving. This is what we are speaking about in regard to everything in this world, including our own selves. We are bred and brought up under false conditions, and falsity has become a part of our nature. We do not know what truth is, and we do not want truth, because truth is the most bitter thing in the world. Yoga looks like a very bitter, most unwanted, terrifying something when we actually try to understand what it is, because our sweet milk-and-honey relationships seem to vanish into the winds the moment we step into this so-called bitter atmosphere of yoga. But this bitterness is necessary because it is the bitterness of medicine that is going to cure our illness, our disease.

Why does it look bitter, while it is going to do good later on? This is because it is apparently the opposite of the false notions of satisfaction implanted in the ego in our so-called bodily individuality. Here is a simple question: Can you sit absolutely alone in your own room for one single day without speaking to anybody, without seeing anyone’s face? For only one day, do not see anybody’s face, and do not speak to any person. Just see your condition. You will be like a fish out of water. It is a horror to be like that. The next day you will look half-crazy because the whole day you have not seen anybody or talked to any person. This shows what we are made of, what our substance really is. We are hollow, with no real substance of our own. If we have a substance of our own, we will be happier the more alone we are. This is the test of progress in spirituality: Do we feel happy when we are alone, or do we feel miserable?

Our real nature is Aloneness in a very, very special sense. It is not a physical aloneness that we are speaking of, though that too has some meaning, after all, at a particular stage. It is a kind of aloneness which increases in intensity and expansiveness as we go on proceeding further and further in the practice of yoga. In the beginning, it is a small aloneness, almost identifiable with our physical bodily aloneness to which I made reference when I said that you should try to be alone in your room; but that is not the real meaning of Aloneness. It has a deeper psychological connotation, and finally a very profound spiritual meaning.

God is the Supreme Aloneness, properly speaking. He has no friends. God has no assistants, no secretaries, no army, no police; He has nothing to call His own. The Supreme Aloneness is God Himself, but His Aloneness is different from the aloneness we can think of in our minds. Because God is everything, we can call that everythingness a kind of Aloneness in a very specialised sense, which is not easy for us to understand. But that universal supremacy of Aloneness is ref lected in our daily lives and calls for recognition every day, every moment of our time.

When we are disgusted with things, sometimes we like to be alone. Oftentimes it looks that we are fed up with things, for various reasons. Then we do not want to speak to people. Our real nature comes out at that time. If we have lost everything, we do not want to speak to people at that time. Our real nature becomes manifest if we hear that something catastrophic has happened and our relatives have died in an accident, all our property has gone, and whatever we regard as ours has been taken away by powers which are beyond our control. Then we do not want to speak to people. We would like to shut ourselves in a room and cry. That shutting ourselves up in a room and crying is our essential nature, ultimately. That is what is going to happen to us one day. When we were born, we cried; and when we go, we will also cry. In the middle, we smile as if everything is beautiful.

Now, this peculiar thing that I am speaking of, this aloneness, is something very important to think of and very essential for us to understand. As I mentioned some days back, in the practice of yoga there is an attempt at gradual extrication from involvements, beginning with externals first and moving internally later on. Hence, it is mentioned in the Bhagavadgita viviktasevī laghvāśī yatavākkāyamānasaḥ (Gita 18.52): “Resort to secluded places.” This resorting to a secluded place is the first thing in yoga, and everything comes afterwards. Sitting in a posture practising pranayama and meditation come later on. First we have to find ourselves in a state of aloneness.

Initially this can be done by trying to find time to be alone at least for an hour every day, without speaking to people. Can you be alone at least for one hour in a day? This is the least that one can expect of you. Take a determination; make a vow: “For one hour in a day, I shall not speak to people.” But if you are tempted to speak to people, then at least close your door so that nobody will come in and there is no chance of speaking. For one hour in a day, you will not open your door. You will be inside your room, and nobody will enter your room at that time. You may be wondering, “What will I do during that one hour?” Let it be anything. Maybe, in the beginning, you will not be able to do anything. Let it be so. You do nothing; you will only be looking at the watch to see when this one hour will be over. Even if that happens to you, it does not matter; do not open the door for one hour.

Many a time when you do japa, you go on seeing how much of the mala is completed, because you are fed up with it. You are tired. For one hour in a day, do not open the door; be alone, read the Gita, read the Sermon on the Mount, read the Dhammapada, read the Bhagavata, read the Ramayana, or do whatever you like. You may even sing and dance if you like, but do not open the door. Gradually, you will be accustomed to this kind of living alone for one hour. Then, later on, you can do something positive and substantial during that one hour instead of merely waiting for the one hour to pass. You can chant a mantra or a divine name—loudly, not mentally. Sing the divine name for one hour, or loudly recite the verses of the Bhagavadgita. Something noble can be put into practice during this time. Gradually, the time should be increased. Usually, it is accepted that when you can be alone for three hours continuously, you can be said to have mastered this technique of aloneness to an appreciable extent; and when you can sit in one posture for three hours continuously, you are said to have attained what is called asana jaya—that is, perfection in asana.

If you can sit in one posture for three hours continuously, that is perfection. If you can be alone for three hours continuously, it is a great achievement. All this is nothing but physical isolation. There is very little of the spiritual element in it, because even if you are alone for an hour or two hours or three hours, your mind may be wandering to the shops and thinking of all sorts of things. Even if that is the case, be physically alone for one hour, two hours, three hours.

After you learn to be alone physically, you have to try to be psychologically alone. That is the next step in yoga. Psychological aloneness is a more difficult technique than physical aloneness. You can lock yourself in your room, shut your door and be physically alone, but you cannot lock the room of your mind—at least, that is very difficult. You cannot keep the mind in a closet and tell it not to see anybody, not to speak to anyone, and so on. The mind will not listen to this advice. Though physical sequestration, isolation, solitude, may be practicable to some extent, mental solitude is almost an impossibility for many people. And it is mental solitude that we are finally seeking through the habituation to physical aloneness or solitude in the beginning.

From the state of physical detachment, you come to a state of mental detachment. As I said, yoga is essentially freedom from attachments; and in the beginning, it has to take the form of physical detachment, though that is not the true yoga. Physical detachment is not sufficient because you can be mentally attached, and that is worse. But, how can you come to a state of mental detachment? As I gave the example the other day of freeing your cloth from the clutches of thorns in a jungle, this personality, which is mind and body combined, has to be freed from the clutches of attachment gradually—first through physical detachment, and then psychological detachment.

So, in the beginning it is necessary to be free from the atmosphere of physical temptations, attractions, attachments, etc. Do not live in places where you will be physically tempted, physically attracted, side-tracked or seduced. Such physical atmospheres should be avoided. This is the least that one can do, because that is absolutely essential before the higher art of freedom from mental attachments can be attempted.

Why do you go to ashrams? You go to monasteries, cathedrals, nunneries, and so on. What is the purpose? The purpose is to make yourself physically incapable of getting tempted or side-tracked into unwanted channels, because the atmosphere and conditions of a monastery or a monastic atmosphere are such that you are physically prevented from going the wrong way, though mentally you may be indulging. Nobody can control the mind. Mentally, you may be doing the worst things, but yet, physically you are completely restricted from your movements along the directions of indulgence. But a protracted limitation placed upon moving physically in the wrong direction will be highly contributory to the more important practice that you have to embark upon—namely, the freedom of the mind from thinking of objects and attaching itself to objects.