As Guru Nanak—the first of the Sikh Gurus—traveled on foot throughout the Indian subcontinent, he spoke out against superficial, pointless practices in religion. Once when he met Hindu saddhus practicing extreme forms of asceticism in hopes of enlightenment, he spoke to them about the true practice of yoga, which means “union.” Yoga, he said,
Lies not in wearing a patched coat, nor in carrying a staff
Nor in smearing your body with ashes.
Yoga does not consist in wearing ear-rings
Or in shaving your head or in blowing a horn.
Remain pure midst the worldly impurities.
Thus shall you ind the way to Yoga.
Yoga is not obtained by mere words.
He is called a Yogi who looks upon all mortals with the same eye
And regards them all as equal.
Yoga consists not in visiting the tombs of saints
Nor in meditating in crematoriums nor in sitting in trance.
Yoga consists not in wandering to distant lands,
Nor in bathing at places of pilgrimage.
Remain pure amid the worldly impurities.
Thus shall you find the way of Yoga.
If a person meets with the True Guru,
Then are his doubts dispelled and his wandering mind restrained.
It rains Nectar, celestial music plays,
And from within his mind, the person obtains enlightenment.
How, then, do we remain pure amid worldly impurities in order to experience enlightenment, union with God? As Guru Nanak suggests, the guidance of a true teacher who himself or herself lives in communion with God is invaluable. I have been blessed with the guidance of such a being, Baba Virsa Singh of India, a great teacher of Sikh background. Under his inspiration and his personal example, our doubts about God’s reality are dispelled and we are given ways to restrain our wandering minds by concentrating on God.
At Babaji’s farm-based communities, there is an extremely powerful way of purifying our minds amidst the impurities of a degraded civilization: We meditate daily before an eternal sacred fire. The fire consumes our own darkness, as it were, and reminds us of the light of God that abides within ourselves and within all of life, even in the darkest of times. Yoga—union with God—comes not by outer practices of renunciation but by the continual inner practice of renouncing the darkness within ourselves.
As I sit daily before the fire—or before a candle’s light—trying to focus all my love and attention on the Light of God, petty self-centered thoughts and emotions often arise. I can see my fears, my anxieties, my selfishness, my negative feelings about others, my pride. The stillness of meditation makes it possible to recognize these impurities of mind and heart. Otherwise they exist unnoticed within the noisiness of modern life, subtly influencing my perceptions and actions. To notice them makes it possible for me to release them—to refuse to allow these lower forms of thinking to control my life. As they arise, and as I become conscious of them rather than being taken in by them, I recognize them as unwanted intruders and try to surrender them to God. Once I stop holding on to them, they drop away, and all that remains is the Light of God.
Baba Virsa Singh says,
God does not say, “I want you to surrender before Me.” God says, “I do not want you to be slaves. I have made you free.” But negative things are attracted to the mind and stick there, forming a curtain between us and God. If we simply think of surrendering them, they will become slightly detached. As soon as one side is unstuck, the whole curtain falls away, revealing the light of enlightenment. Enlightenment is always inside us, hidden by the curtain of ignorant ego-centered thoughts. This curtain is not like stone. It is quite thin, has no weight, and can be broken very easily, just by a mere thought of surrendering. . . . Then one is merged with the Great Reality. No worldly pleasure can compare with the sweetness of this communion.
[prepared for BBC World Service Words of Faith]