It [austerity] had a wide meaning: the central idea is training to become independent of all circumstances, outer or inner. It has to be practised, in small things at first. In the end, when the independent Self is realized, it is a natural effortless fact. It is not the same as an external self-control with seething passion within. In application it means, to be able to act without reacting. This cannot be done till the internal passions have been thinned out. They are in fact based on illusion; when that is realized consciously and vividly, not merely intellectually, passions no longer enslave.
He often spoke of the madness of Romeo and Juliet. He pointed out that the play makes clear that Romeo was falling in love with other girls before he met Juliet. The love would not last long; he would soon be attracted elsewhere. They knew nothing of each other, or the hidden potentialities for discord in themselves.
He said that the whole must be looked at, not merely a part. The hangover is part of the drinking party; the damage to the lung is part of smoking a cigarette. (This was said long before the link with cancer was established.) He remarked that it took six weeks for the body-mind to recover from sexual conjunction, and warned against casual affairs. Pleasure for its own sake harms the organism, and invariably brings an adverse reaction. Such effects can be observed: memory becomes weaker, and there is an effect on the skin. The passions fight each other, and make life meaningless.
They cannot be controlled by just saying ‘No’. He approved Freud’s recommendation of repression and sublimation (‘Poor man, so much misunderstood!). He adopted the phrase ‘master sentiment’: to integrate all the passions into a noble striving would give some relief from the misery of life. But ultimately, the master sentiment had to be the search for truth, freedom and bliss. I used to find this antiquated moralizing (as I thought it) intolerably tedious. I believed one should be able to throw away all dependence, certainly. This was to include every kind of desire, even the desire for life. But having achieved that freedom, one could take them up again for the moment, and put them down again, like a toy. I had no idea of the dynamic impressions left by them, which could not be swept away by a mere act of will.
In the yoga system, purposeful actions, including thoughts, especially intensely emotional ones, leave dynamic impressions. These constantly press for expression by repetition. They choke the mind, and the tangle obstructs the divine light, and deepen illusion. They are mostly centred round the ego-sense, They are thinned by unselfish action and thought, by realising their illusory nature and practising detachment, and by devotion to God.
When they begin to appear, they can be extinguished by meditation. It generally takes a good time, as many texts confirm; he used to quote ‘dirgha kalena’, after a long time. But he pointed out that people were willing to spend a long time in trying to make money, in ambitious projects and so on. In many cases, he added, they spend a long time destroying their own health and happiness.
Dr Shastri told his pupils to practise some small austerity every day; to miss a meal, to refrain from retaliation, to face small misfortunes cheerfully and in silence. As an example, he recommended the austerity of speech. This meant to speak to the point and not just to pass the time. The rule is, that what is said must be useful, kindly, true, and not provocative.
He applied this quite strictly. Like many of my generation, I had not hesitated to tell some small ‘white lie’ to cover an embarrassment, or to please.
I used to think of it as like ‘Dear Sir’ at the beginning of a letter to someone whom one has never met. No one is deceived. It was a surprise to be taken up on one. He had shown me a traditional Indian exercise for thumbs and fingers, and he asked me whether this was known in Japan. I had a vague idea that I had once seen an old drawing of it, and said casually: ‘Oh yes.’ He looked up and said: ‘It is surprising that it is known there.’ I felt vaguely uncomfortable, and did not answer. Some time later he remarked: ‘I was most surprised, brother, when you told me the other day that the thumb exercise was known in Japan.’ I felt embarrassed again, and said nothing. But after that I was much more careful about my statements.
© Trevor Leggett