“Escapism” is one of the most damning terms in use to-day. It implies the shirking of moral and physical responsibilities, the lack of courage and fortitude to face life and its complexities—often self-made—and the building up of a mental world which does not correspond to actual fact.
Men abhor cowardice, and although they may themselves be cowards, they hide it as best they may, and will not telerate it in others. Escapism is a form of mental cowardice, a psychological condition subconsciously resorted to by the mind. Thus to describe a philosophy or an ideal as ‘ escapist ’ is to bring it into disrepute. It is nevertheless a term often levelled at the man who becomes a follower of Adhyatma Yoga, and moulds his life in accordance with its philosophy, through practice, without which no philosophy is of any value.
Before such an accusation can be proved or disproved, it is necessary to know exactly what Adhyatma Yoga is, what it promises to its adherents and how its end is to be achieved.
Adhyatma Yoga teaches that the world—the entire manifested universe-—is passing and transient, and as such is not the real and eternal Principle, without birth, change and dissolution, which is the substratum on which the world of change is manifested.
Man, the highest product of this manifested universe, is always seeking, consciously or unconsciously, the real Principle underlying it, because he desires above all things, security and happiness, and only in that Principle do these inhere without termination or fluctuation. He looks for them in the world where they cannot be found, for it is in his own Essence, behind and beyond body, mind and all that comprises the limited personality that they are located.
When man realises the nature of his own being, through a life directed to that end, he knows himself to be the real Principle behind and pervading the whole universe. Then for him there is no more fear, no sorrow, no death. His real Being is ever peace and bliss. He comes into the ‘ Kingdom of Heaven ’ and the whole purpose of his life is accomplished.
Such are the basic points of the philosophy, supported by the reasoning and experience of the great spiritual intellects ; they stand as expressions of supreme Truth, to be known directly by all.
The practices cover every aspect of life, and consist of a self-imposed discipline whereby a direction is given to thought, word and deed. Broadly speaking, this discipline falls into four divisions, namely, devotion, detachment, service and meditation. Through these practices, which bring about inner purification, a deep and profound stillness is created in the turbulent mind. When the strength and stability of this centre is established, the spell of the mind is broken and the Self knows Itself as It is, ever was and ever will be.
Is there any justification for the application of the term ‘ escapism ’ to the Adhyatma Yoga ? The whole purpose of this Yoga is that man shall realise and know the ultimate Reality—that which is Real in the final sense—and no longer be a slave to the apparent reality of the world. Men argue that the world is very much a reality and an immediate experience, whereas Reality is remote and has no apparent bearing on life.
Electricity has always existed and it had a great influence on men’s lives even in its latent state, when it was still unrecognised, and not made use of as a force. Now that it is patent and manipulated, its influence is infinitely greater.
Even so, this real Principle is ever present, though undetected, nor could man exist without it. When it is realised in actuality as the Self, its influence for good is supreme.
If a man is dreaming of experiences full of misery and misfortune, must he remain asleep in order to deal with his unhappy stituation, should he not awaken to the relatively more substantial life of the world ? Is it escapism on the part of the dreamer when he awakens, and feels a tremendous relief ?
If this world is not the reality man takes to be, and gives only suspense, hope and fear, why should he cling to it and not awaken to the Real ? By doing so he does not forsake the world, but knows it for what it is. In fact he is the realist, and all others are deluded by this erroneous idea.
It is to be noted that such a man does not forsake the world, for it is a common mistake to think that anyone called a Yogi not only performs peculiar exercises, but leaves the world, family and home and goes into the forest to live in solitude and feed on roots and berries.
In the Bhagavad Gita, which contains the Yoga as taught by the Lord Himself to His pupil Prince Arjuna, special stress is laid on the necessity of performing one’s duty, whatever it happens to be. Prince Arjuna, who was of the warrior caste, did not wish to fight for the just cause in which he was involved.
The Lord insisted that he must do so, but in a spirit of detachment. He was given the Yogic instruction while engaged in the mental and physical fight.
It may be added here that it is an error to consider a life of retirement from the world of men to be escapism. Entry into a religious Order, has always meant, in the highest sense, a life of extreme rigour and inner and outer discipline, as anyone knows who has read the lives of the Saints. It is a life of constant remembrance of the divine Being, through prayer, penance, enforced silence and communion, and it creates thought-forms of the highest kind, which cannot but help men in the world.
William James tells of an experiment he made, when he was attending a banquet. The guests were assembled in two rooms, in one of which a coal fire was burning. He deliberately concentrated his thoughts on the fire, to the exclusion of everything else. Suddenly he became aware that all the guests in the two rooms were talking about fire.
In ‘ Lost Horizon ’ a group of people find their aeroplane has landed them near a monastery in the fastnesses of the interior of Tibet. One of them is a lady missionary, a vigorous, well-meaning woman. She is conducted round the monastery by a monk, and is struck by the air of repose in the silent, wrapt figures sitting in contemplation, oblivious of outer disturbances. She asks her guide what they do all day. “ We meditate ” is the reply. “ Yes ” she says, “ but don’t you do anything ? ” “ Madame,” replied the monk, “ if meditating is doing nothing, then we do nothing ”.
Far from escaping from the world, such men add untold riches to the mental realm which reach and influence countless others. Because they do not live a life of continuous action, whether good or otherwise, this materialistic civilisation labels them as escapists.
In fact they can be said to be more ‘ true to themselves ’ than those who expend their vital energy on external works, and find, as their life energy declines, that they are spiritually, and often mentally bankrupt.
This article is, however, more concerned with the ordinary daily round of life in the world, and that man who pursues a Yogic course whilst following it. His practice of devotion, or deep and continuous love of God and the sense of His presence, gives him compassion and love for all men, for all men are in their essential nature, that God. Detachment helps him to remain tranquil and in tranquility he can perform his duty better. His judgment will be sound, his actions deft, his words true. It is not the detachment of cold-heartedness, bred of indifference, but a realisation of the inability of any outer thing or person to give enduring happiness, and the acknowledgment of their inner reality and final goal.
Stefan Zweig wrote a story about a man who became a prisoner in the last war and was subjected to terrible psychological torture to make him reveal certain information. He was afraid that his reason might give way under the ordeal. During one test, he saw a small book lying on the table and felt an overpowering urge to get it, for he felt sure that it would help him to focus his mind on something other than his condition. By careful strategy he obtained the book, only to find to his bitter disappointment, that it contained nothing but a series of chess moves, of which game he knew nothing. However he began to concentrate on the moves, until he knew each one by heart. His mind kept its balance, and afterwards, when he was set free, he was unbeatable at chess, so long as he maintained his concentration.
So the mind of a Yogi deliberately turns away from desire or dislike of any object, for, if fostered, these feelings create nothing but hope and fear, frustration and misery. When caught up in them, it is impossible to create that inner silence necessary for the realisation of Truth, the Real. So it is essential that the mind shall be focused upon aspects of Truth, and all that helps to still and purify it.
The impulse to serve, and putting this impulse into practice, follow naturally in the wake of man’s love for God, either as an Incarnation or an abstract Symbol. The lives of the Saints demonstrate this. It may be service of the meanest nature ; it may be most exalted ; it may be known to God alone, or acknowledged by the multitude, but in every case it is carried out without any self-interest or feeling of virtue, and can, by no stretch of imagination be called ‘ escapism’.
The last of the four main Yogic practices, is meditation, and it has a great attraction for many who feel the need to contact the Source of courage and peace. Yet this practice in particular has been condemned as ‘ escapist ’, for in order to meditate it is necessary to find some secluded place, somewhere quiet where the mind may leave the world and centre itself on itself, in full awareness and in perfect control. In this way the mind is detached from the senses, and finally the Self is detached from the mind. The Self ‘ escapes ’ from the prison of the mind and the world, and manifests freedom, peace and joy beyond human comprehension. When this ‘ escape ’ is accomplished, the unreal world is seen to be only a misunderstanding of the Real, and life becomes a constant prayer in devotion, detachment and service.
On September 6th, 1620, the ‘ Mayflower ‘ left Plymouth, taking a few Quakers from their families, friends, security and familiar surroundings to face an unknown future, in an unknown land, to be reached after a perilous journey. They went because they were determined to worship their Lord in the way they felt to be right. So the follower of Adhyatma Yoga leaves his old ideas, recognised as wrong, and escapes to a new world of eternal freedom, truth and actuality, but he knows where he is going and is guided to his goal. That world embraces within it the world of birth, growth and death, to choose it is no severance from life, but the fulfilment of it, even as maturity is the natural result of infancy and youth.
Escapism is the building of a mental world which does not correspond to fact—Yoga is fact.