At a satsang at the IYI in Buenos Aries in February, I spoke and led a discussion about three elements of spiritual life: discrimination, equanimity and service. Here are some of the points that were made and contributed, that brought out the complementary nature of formal practice and bringing the teachings into action.
Discrimination, or viveka, is the capacity for discernment that is very potent in freeing us from suffering, cited by Patanjali in the 26th sutra of the second chapter. One way of understanding suffering is that we suffer when we react to life based on our conditioned way of seeing and understanding ourselves, our defined identity. We tend to live under the illusion that we are all separate, and that we need to protect ourselves and arrange our lives to make happiness possible.
For example, as long as I subconsciously experience criticism as a threat to my self-esteem, I will likely judge as invalid any criticism that comes my way and feel justified in dismissing it. Thus, I disable my response-ability, my experience of what is actually taking place in the present moment. I unconsciously prevent connection with life and other beings, the very thing that our hearts long for.
Discrimination is the capacity to see clearly and be fully present to life as it is, without seeing through a colored lens. A neutral mind can discriminate between that which may be painful, but ultimately beneficial, and that which has no benefit. Discrimination makes it possible to see where we can assert ourselves to effect change and where we simply need to accept things that are beyond our control.
Equanimity is a useful translation of the word upekshanam that is used by Patanjali in the 33rd sutra of the first chapter, implying an ability to maintain balance, even in the face of adversity. Sri Gurudev often used equanimity to describe the unflappable state of mind that Yoga practice makes possible. Gurudev loved to use the compelling example of a surfer to illustrate how we can develop an internal steadiness to such an extent that we would invite bigger and bigger waves, or challenges in life, and take joy in meeting them head on.
Service or seva, is both a beginning and an end to the spiritual path. As we begin to practice Yoga, its power to transform out lives is realized when we attempt to integrate it into daily life. At first, this may mean simply trying to keep our peace and respond to life more thoughtfully—but even that is a service to a world that is starved for more peaceful hearts.
Any comprehensive practice of Yoga will include some effort to think of and serve the needs of others as this is where we learn to align our behavior with our true nature. Consider these benefits of service:
• While serving, we are not causing harm to anyone, which may be a real improvement from some things we normally do
• Through interaction with others, our weaknesses get exposed and our strengths express. We rub and scrub each other.
• We start the process of opening our hearts to others. It is in service that we begin to shift from “me centered” action to “we centered.”
• Service makes obvious the need for practice—for some way to calm and clear the mind and develop the awareness of the present moment that makes it possible to truly consider the well-being of others, rather than our own comfort.
Meditation is probably the most effective way to develop this non-judgmental, non-reactive awareness of what is happening, both around us and within us. Only by having this kind of clarity can we discern the difference between the pre-programmed or habitual ways of thinking and the impulses of genuine compassion that arise from the spiritual self. It is truly a challenge to be present enough to catch ourselves in the middle of rationalizing our selfishness or mentally putting ourselves down, which helps no one.
But with regular meditation practice, where we begin to experience ourselves as separate from our thoughts, it becomes possible to act with more skill. I do not mean that our emotional reactions to life will cease, but our ability to notice them will increase, as well as our ability to observe with clarity those we interact with. This is where our power to change lies first of all, in choosing how to respond to life—to what we see in ourselves and in others– rather than reacting in some automatic way.
For example, when I do see hurt or anger arising in the face of some criticism, I can make a conscious choice to breathe deeply and set aside an initial impulse to shut down or fight. I can choose to listen more carefully to what is being said and be sensitive to the intentions of the person speaking. Are these words coming with a genuine intent to help me grow, or do I detect ulterior motives on the part of this person?
For this reason, maybe meditation creates a more balanced tripod with discrimination and service, as three complimentary elements of spiritual life, each one reinforcing the other.
Equanimity could be considered an outcome of these practices. The more mental steadiness we experience from meditation, the better our capacity for discernment, which in turn improves our ability to serve. Service gives us the opportunity to bring our practice into daily life, exercise our discrimination muscles, and experience a new kind of joy, not from getting, but from opening our hearts and giving.
Asokananda and I once asked Sri Gurudev, as we drove him to the airport, if we should increase the time spent in meditation. He reviewed our schedule and then advised us not to spend more time in formal meditation practice, but to meditate on our service.
The more fully we experience the truth, the more our lives become naturally dedicated to service, as we have witnessed in our own master and countless saints from all traditions. This is why service is also a hallmark of advancement on the spiritual path. Service is very easy to start as well since we can transform anything we do into service just by carrying into it the intention to bring benefit to someone. There are many opportunities every day, so no matter how we may struggle one moment, we always have the chance to try again.