In yoga practice there are small confirmations almost from the very beginning.16 min read

Yogic action begins with following the traditional instructions on life, but it cannot remain a question of obedience, sometimes cheerful and sometimes reluctant. There might be no time to think, ‘What ought I to do?’ If yoga has been practised faithfully, habits of right action are set up which cover most cases. But the time comes when things are not clear: perhaps duties conflict, or cause suffering to innocent people.

The yoga practices of meditation lay down luminous, semi-transparent saskāra-impressions at the root of the mind. At first these are mostly just good thinking-patterns and good action-pattems, which reproduce what has been contemplated on. But as the translucent areas become wider, shafts of light begin to shine through them. Then there are inspirations which have nothing to do with limitation.

Suppose it is necessary to take a considerable risk for a good cause. The yogin’s first feeling may be to try to escape, but then he screws his resolution up to it. This is a great victory in a yogic career. What has been practised at special times, in safety, is now brought to life in the middle of danger. Yet there is something higher still. When he has practised earnestly – not necessarily for a very long time, but earnestly – and the situation is put to him, he feels to his surprise an uprush in his spirit: ‘Yes, yes, come on, come on!’ A normally rather timid person is amazed at the daring coming from the unknown depths.

There can be agonizing decisions to be taken, both alternatives of which are equally unthinkable. (This is the Gītā situation, at the beginning.) A foreign student on a visit to a dictatorship gets to know one of the local students. The foreign student sometimes talks about politics. Without telling anyone, he smuggles in some officially unwelcome literature and leaves it in public places. The police find copies, and begin an inquiry. The foreign student is advised by his embassy (who have a good idea what has happened) to leave the country; they will get him out quickly. He is about to agree, when he hears in a roundabout way that the police are thinking of pinning the offence on to his friend, who knows nothing about it.

He tells the embassy that if the friend is arrested, he will himself go and own up. The wise old embassy Counsellor tells him privately: Tt would do no good at all; they’d simply sentence both of you. I’ve been in this country thirty years, and I know. The police don’t like him, and they never let anyone go that they don’t like. Go home – you can’t do anything by staying.’

What is he to do? He can go, but if his friend is arrested, he may be plagued by guilt all his life. After all, the Counsellor might be wrong; having got the real culprit, the police might find it awkward to arrest someone else as well. But if he stays on, every morning he will have the apprehensive thought: ‘Will it be today?’

In the case of a yogin, something completely different rises which frees him from both alternatives. No one who has not been through this sort of experience has the right to suggest particular ‘solutions’; in any case people do not believe them.

Here are some comments on the general principle given by Dr Shastri in his book A Path to God-realization, published in China for the Chinese public as well as his own pupils.

Life has proved to me that at times the mind also becomes helpless and confused and cannot then be relied upon. The mind says, ‘All is over’, but at such moments a light superior to the mind flashes within and guides my thoughts, which were submerged in hopelessness, to quite unanticipated regions. In the twinkling of an eye all sorrow vanishes, problems are solved, the knot of fate is untied.

Be it remembered that the human mind never recommends to itself self-sacrifice or absolute self-abnegation. The power which produces these conditions must, therefore, be beyond the mind.

Whence does the inspiration come? This superior power is the light of Ātman, the spirit of man, flashing through the psychic medium called the heart.

Gītā XV. 19 He who, undeluded, knows the supreme Spirit, knows all. . . .

(Śakara’s comment: by becoming the Spirit which is the Self of all things, he knows them . . . this is what is meant by saying that he knows all.)

It is natural to ask: What can these old texts on yoga give to me in my present life? And anyway, how do I know that they are true?

One of the features of yoga practice is that there are small confirmations almost from the very beginning. They can come even to people who are not formally practising it at all. To study yoga theory can make us aware of spiritual events in daily life which otherwise just get overlooked. Or else people say: ‘Wasn’t that extraordinary!’ but then shift it onto a sort of mental siding, because it doesn’t seem to fit in with ordinary experience.

So, long before a great realization like that of the verse ‘He who undeluded knows the supreme Spirit…’ these can be small inspirations; they can happen to anyone whose mind is relatively calm, and unselfishly concentrated on a good end. In fact, inspirations are raining on to all minds from the supreme Spirit all the time, but those who are darkened and agitated by selfish passions cannot understand them.

We see the same thing when we begin to study science.

When our eyes are opened to the laws of physics, for example, we begin to realize that these laws are operating everywhere and all the time. But we will see the operation clearly only when the circumstances are favourable. For instance, it is very difficult to see gravity working on leaves in a hurricane. They are carried high into the air; though gravity is pulling all the time, its effect is masked and apparently reversed by the action of the wind. In the same way, the effect of divine inspiration is masked and apparently contradicted by the gale of selfish passion.

On a calm day in autumn, the action of gravity on falling leaves is more clearly seen, though still a bit distorted by wind resistance. It was perfectly shown only in the vacuum on the moon surface, when the astronaut was filmed dropping a piece of lead and a feather side by side, and they reached the surface together. Similarly, in a calm and clear mind, the action of inspiration from the supreme Spirit is clearer, though it becomes perfectly received only in the complete stillness of samādhi meditation.

Examples of inspiration in worldly life are often given (in the West) from the lives of great scientists, or (in the East) from those of great artists. Many of them are very convincing, because they are well attested. They were so famous that their inspirations were recorded. The disadvantage is, that we may come to think inspiration must be associated with technical mastery of some specialized field.

It can be somehow frustrating to hear about inspirations of scientists and artists, and then be told that this same inspiration can transform our own everyday life. We need examples of it in people not gifted with great talents. But the difficulty is, that now there is no evidence in support; no one has heard of these people and it all seems just stories.

Still, there are cases where the solutions speak for themselves. Sometimes it is the application of a traditional saying, such as the Zen one about Shutting the Door. Dr Shastri (who had lived and taught for years in Japan and China) once quoted it for his pupils.

In an old-style Japanese hotel, a guest has his own room, and the maid brings the meals there. One day, over-worked and tired, she doesn’t close the door fully when she goes out.

If the guest is an inconsiderate man who does not notice the girl’s fatigue and simply demands value for his money, he shouts: ‘Oi! Shut that door!’

If it is a scholar, he calls politely: ‘Shut the door, would you please?’

But if it is a man of Zen, he gets up and shuts it himself.

Often after hearing such a story, we think, ‘How beautiful,’ and pass on to something else. But it is meant to be applied in life. How can it be applied? one wonders; we do not have the situation here.

But take the case of an ambitious teenager studying for examinations. His teachers say that if he studies at home five evenings a week for a year, he can get the necessary grades. He wants to do it, but finds it harder and harder to settle down to his books in the evening in his bedroom while the parents are watching television. They keep it low, but he knows it is on. He begins to stay to watch a bit himself, and this bit gets longer and longer.

Now perhaps the father has a row with him: ‘You’ve taken this on, and you’ll damned well go through with it, like I had to at your age. Or I won’t lift a finger to help you get started in life afterwards.’ This may have some effect, but it can also produce lifelong resentment. The mother may try gentle persuasion: ‘It’s only for a year – tell yourself that. It’s only a year. I’ll bring you some coffee and a sandwich at nine o’clock, dear. Anything you want, you just tell me. You know we all want to help.’ Again it may have some effect, but that effect soon wears off. Then what to do?

Suppose the parents have practised a spiritual path, and heard something like the Zen Shut the Door! story How is it to be applied? They meditate on it, and there is an inspiration. Father ponders, ‘There’s that diploma I’ve often thought of going in for. It’s not directly in my line, but it would be quite an advantage to have it. It’d take about a year.’ And mother has an idea too: ‘I’ve always wanted to try embroidery; I could find an evening class round here, and go once a week, and do it at home the other week-days.’

So without any fuss, a new routine begins on week-day evenings. When the table is cleared after the early evening meal, the television is shut down, father gets out some books and paper, and mother gets out her sewing. The son now finds it easy to study: everyone is studying.

The father’s shout, ‘You’ll damned well do it!’ – that was the shout of Shut the Door! The mother’s plea, ‘It’s only a year, dear’ – that was the Please Shut the Door. But when they themselves began studying – that was shutting the door oneself.

One could think: ‘Well, that is after all an idea that could come to almost anyone; it is true that most people don’t seem to think of it, but still, I wouldn’t have to call it inspiration.’ There is a much clearer instance in what Dr Watson would have called The Curious Affair of the State Coach.

By the nineteenth century, the British Coronation ritual was the most ancient in Europe; but in practice it was nothing like the much rehearsed and brilliantly stage-managed ceremonials of today. Reigns were often short; the Earl Marshal, traditionally in charge, would in his lifetime normally see about three such ceremonies: first as a junior helping his father, then in charge himself, and finally as an adviser in the background. There were records of the outline of the ceremonies, but the details were from memory: Do what was done last time.

However when Edward VII finally came to the throne, and was to be crowned in 1902, there was a difficulty. His mother Queen Victoria had become Queen as a young girl in 1837, and there was no one still living who had had anything to do with the coronation arrangements. The Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, was a mild-mannered and conscientious man, though not (by all accounts) over-burdened with brains. He and his committee determined that everything should go perfectly. To forestall any untoward happenings, they would follow exactly the coronation ceremony of the young Queen Victoria. They had to shuffle through a great deal of paper to find out details.

He wrote in his diary that he thought of it day and night. They got a little more time when the King suddenly fell ill, and had to be operated on for appendicitis. Finally everything was settled. There was no time for a full-scale rehearsal, but the main characters in the ritual knew their parts – though with some anxious moments in the case of the octogenarian Archbishop of Canterbury. (In the event, the King had to hold him up at one point.)

The Earl Marshal noted in his diary that at last he felt that they had completed their task. He put away the papers, dismissed his secretary, and went to bed. He slept briefly, but then found himself awake, with the feeling that there was something wrong. He tried to brush it aside: they had all gone over the whole thing again and again. There was no possible mistake, none. But he could not sleep.

When he realized that he was going to be awake, he took a decision that shows considerable character. He may not have been too bright intellectually, but he could think constructively. Instead of mindlessly worrying over something that he could not specify, he resolved to pass the time by calmly picturing in full detail the whole event, just as they had planned it. He had been thinking of it continuously, and in the quiet of the bedroom, yet wide awake, he would easily have passed into a state of complete concentration.

He saw himself turning up at Buckingham Palace in very good time; there was no worry that the King would not be ready, but he had to check with one of the ladies-in-waiting that the Queen’s distressing tendency to lateness was under control. Punctually at eleven o’clock the royal pair got into the golden state coach, built by Sir W. Chambers in 1760 at a cost of £8,000, and which had carried the young Queen Victoria to Westminster Abbey for her own coronation sixty-four years before. The coach is enclosed, and has a sort of ornamental top-knot on its roof. Behind an escort of cuirassiers, the eight cream-coloured horses began to pull the coach; he watched with satisfaction its dignified pace along the Mall.

Following the route taken by Queen Victoria, the carriage turned right before the great Admiralty Arch, and went across the open parade ground towards the much smaller arch of the Horse Guards. It would pass under that arch into Whitehall. The Earl Marshal surveyed its progress in his mind’s eye.

It was just entering the darkness of the arch . . . now it would come out. . . . But no, it did not. He made the picture again. It would go through the arch, and come out. . . . But he could not get the carriage through. He knew that this very state coach, with the young Queen Victoria in it, had gone through that very arch. Yet now – for some reason – it would not. There could be no reason, but – he could not get the state coach through the arch.

As soon as it was light, he sent an urgent message to his secretary to come at once, with a carpenter’s rule and tape measure. They went first to the stables, and carefully measured the height of the top of the state coach. Then they went to the Horse Guards arch, and measured its maximum height. Two inches too low: the coach would not go through.

Hastily the route was re-planned, and the state coach went instead under the huge Admiralty Arch, to turn right into Whitehall, as it does on State occasions today.

The diary does not speculate on possible explanations: perhaps the ground under the arch had been repaired and raised a little, or perhaps the arch had sunk a little in sixty years, or perhaps in the refurbishment of the state coach, the wheel-rims had been replaced by thicker ones.

The important point is that it was an inspiration, a ‘truth-bearing knowledge’ in the words of Patañjali, who says that this comes to one who had practised pure single-minded concentration on a particular thing for a good time. The inspiration was against the logic of the situation, though with hindsight we can see that it was not illogical. Logical thinking might suggest: ‘Check on the remote chance that the relative heights of the coach and arch might have changed.’ However the inspiration was not like that. It did not say: ‘Check!’ but gave the result before any check had been made.

A second point to notice is that it was not one of those vague premonitions of a distracted mind, noticed when they come true but forgotten or discounted (‘well, I wasn’t really sure, you know’) when they do not. True inspiration comes to a mind that has concentrated unselfishly and one-pointedly for a considerable time on the same thing, and when it finally enters a state of quiet meditation.

One may ask: why don’t these things happen more often? As a rule, they come once and then no more. One reason is, that the surprising success usually arouses selfishness in the mind. Then the conditions for inspiration are disturbed. The feeling comes: ‘I’ve done it once, and I can do it again. I can really make something out of this.’ It is quite difficult to rise above the excitement and anticipation. The experience of the sages who were experts in yoga is that without regular and earnest meditation practice it can hardly be done. When selfish illusions rise, they are like a cloud of smoke, cutting us off from the sunshine of inspiration, and this is why the Gītā verse quoted at the beginning said: ‘undeluded’. The mind-sky must be clear.

Writing

Writing: Love, no Love

1 The nature of the pencil is long. So it should be held well down the shaft, balanced by middle and index fingers, with thumb coming on afterwards to help steer.

2 When control has been learnt, the pencil can cover a wide sweep, and the hand does not have to be continually moved. High-speed shorthand reporters, holding in this way, can write a whole line with perfect precision, without needing to move the hand. Once mastered, it is natural and easy.

3 The pencil is held as if it were a stub, tightly pinched between finger-tips and a bent thumb. It is treated as an enemy, and often there is much needless pressure. The hand has to be moved for each word, and it is unnatural and tiring.

© Trevor Leggett