In India, there are many types of colorful human beings, none more so than the wandering ascetics (sannyasins, sadhus).
They come in different shapes, sizes, and varieties. Some are naked and smeared in ash, while others wear a sole peach colored cloth. Their outward appearance is meant to reflect detachment from who they once were; their sole aspiration is to discover their true identity, beneath all the worldly things. To this end, they sever ties with family, profession, name, and money.
What is surprising to foreign eyes, at least at first, is that these men are revered and supported. In the west, if we came across such a person on the street, we would likely dismiss them as a homeless bum or religious fanatic!
Indian society, by contrast, sanctions and values the idea of ‘dropping out.’ We often get attached to and worked up about things like name, title, or wealth, forgetting that these are all aspects of the ego role we play. In some way, the sanyassin serves to remind the rest of society that all of this is just a play.
Now, the obvious problem is that not everyone can drop out. Some people still have play the game of being a productive member of society, growing food and supporting material functioning. Not to mention producing future members!
This is why sanyassin is the fourth stage (ashrama) in the Hindu progression of life. India says, there is a time and a place to drop out, but before that, you play the roles of student, householder, and retiree. You have to play by the rules of the game to get to the point where you transcend the game.
With a steady job and family, I find myself firmly entrenched in the householder (grihasta) stage. Because I have to concentrate on so many material things, this may not seem outwardly like an overly “spiritual” stage. Living in a city, having a job, paying bills, washing clothes: all of this takes time and energy away from time that I could be spending doing yoga or practicing formal meditation. Even when I do manage to have a moment’s break from son or my job, it can be difficult to muster the energy to do anything else but chill out.
There’s certainly a part of me that misses the option of sitting quietly in the morning. I wish I could dedicate more energy to investigating my mind, to learning pranayama and other breath techniques,or to reading sacred scriptures. It sometimes feels that that’s the ‘real’ spiritual work, and that I am temporarily incapable of engaging in it.
When I feel like this, though, I remind myself that India doesn’t see this time of life as devoid of spiritual possibilities. On the contrary, having worldly responsibilities is a necessary and important step on the spiritual path. The goal of spiritual practice is dis-identification with the “I”, and each stage offers unique perspectives and lessons on how to do this. Being a householder, I have the potential to engage with challenges not found in other stages, which can help me shed away layers of selfishness and fear that might be more difficult to spot at other times.
This stage requires a different kind of training and discipline. Before, I made it a point to find time every day to sit meditation or do yoga. It was difficult at first to adopt these habits, but after awhile, it became natural.
Now, the discipline that’s required is not limited to a single daily time slot. When Gabriel is running around and a thousand things need to get done, it is a more or less constant process to keep centered in the storm of busyness and obligations.
Like doing yoga, there are some days when I really resist this and would rather unplug completely. But when there is no longer any time left for ‘sacred’ practices, the distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘mundane’ collapses.
The spiritual traditions have been telling us all along that all life is yoga, that everyday mind is Buddha mind, that everything you do is sacred. Somehow, this becomes a little bit more clear when your meditation hour has been replaced by doing dishes and reading your child a story for the thousandth time.
Although it may not look like it on the outside, the householder stage also offers a beautiful opportunity for renunciation. It looks very different than the sannyasin’s, but it is equally challenging.
Subsumed in obligations, the constant temptation is to insist on ‘time for me’. I look at friends who don’t have kids and feel a twinge of jealousy when they tell me they slept in till 11, or are going off for a month to Hawaii. If I could just have an hour each day where I don’t have to be serving others…
But I know I can chose to look at the fact that I’ve renounced my former life as a burden (I’ve had to give up so much…) or an opportunity (I get to give up so much!).
Many spiritual traditions tell us that our presence here is a result of God’s intentionally limiting His-Her essence. In Christianity, the reduction of God’s totality to the finite scale is called kenosis (emptying). Kaballists describe a similar process called tzimtzum: God’s first act was to limit and contract Himself in order to make room for the universe.
Seen this way, whenever you serve, you are actually putting yourself in line with the giving nature of God. By embracing the limitation of yourself, you are, in some way, partaking in the divine quality of offering yourself up.
If I can connect with this, then I couldn’t ask for a greater gift than having no time for myself.
This process of service, and the potential realization that comes along with it, can of course, be done at any stage in life. But as a householder, your feet are held to the fire in a way that is perhaps not as intense at other times of life. As a student, if you don’t study your texts, you might get kicked out of school. Compare this to having your family put out on the street if you don’t make your rent.
I feel there is a connection here with the fact that Jewish mystical practices (Kabbalah) were traditionally reserved for those over 40. Having a few kids and a wife gives you lived situations and experiences that give you the chance to put your theory into practice. It’s much easier to speak about patience than it is to practice it. Abstract concepts of service and charity suddenly take on a concrete dimension.
I suppose there is a part of me that is looking forward to the possibility of spending my golden years away in a monastery. Having contributed to society, I would be free to spend my time however I wish, which for me would be exploring and investigating the nature of existence.
But I have to remind myself not only that this chance might not come. Moreover, I can do that right here and now if I shift my attitude.
If I can’t count on an enlightened retirement, then I better get cracking at deriving as much wisdom as I can from playing the role of father, teacher, and husband. And if I can’t find the sacred in the joys and struggles of this very moment, then where do I expect it to be found?