The Vedic spiritual tradition, as magnificently manifested in the Bhagavat Purana, the volume of stories, fables, and lessons from the life of Krishna, the Divine Personality of God, and His followers and friends, tells us of the exceptional position of human life. In the apparatus of our human form, our body-mind-intelligence-soul framework, we have the opportunity to realize the deepest meaning and reality of our own individual self, and the meaning and reality of our relationship with God.
According to the Vedas, other life forms, the animals and plants we share this world with, do not have this same opportunity. I have noticed that to exclude the birds and bees from a life of enlightenment is a matter of fierce debate, but the science of self-realization does not run merely on the engine of instinct. The eminent Vedic sage and scholar Swami Prabhupada writes in his translation of the Bhagavat Purana that:
Animals in bodies lower than that of the human being are conscious only as far as their bodily distress and happiness are concerned; they cannot think of more than their bodily necessities of life-eating, sleeping, mating and defending. But in the human form of life, by the grace of God, the consciousness is so developed that a man can evaluate his exceptional position and thus realize the self and the Supreme Lord.1
This is where we come to an even stickier point. To run beyond our feral instincts means to understand the power of our mind and senses, and to be able to actually harness the power of our mind and senses. It is a matter of control, of discipline.
Swami Prabhupada also writes in the Bhagavat Purana:
By controlling the senses, or by the process of yoga regulation, one can understand the position of his self, the Supersoul, the world and their interrelation; everything is possible by controlling the senses.2
Spiritual life becomes very meaningful when we understand the blessings that discipline can bring into our consciousness. In the Bhagavad-gītā, Krishna explains that the mind can be either our best friend, or our worst enemy. One doesn't have to be yearning for divinity to understand this in a very visceral and practical way. Krishna then goes on to describe certain “regulative principles of freedom”3 which allow us to be no longer held hostage by our uncontrolled minds and senses.
Followers of the bhakti tradition, from monks like myself to those who are married together, attempt to honor and hold four main regulative principles to enhance our spiritual experience. First, we are vegetarian (and vegan, if we so choose), avoiding all meat, eggs, and fish to uphold the sacred principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, which is essential to spiritual development. Second, we avoid intoxication, even caffeine and tobacco, in order to clarify and purify our vision and thought.
Third, we do not gamble or speculate, in order to avoid falling into the various illusory traps that greed may offer us. Lastly, we only practice sex in marriage, and mainly for the procreation of children, in order to defend the sacred nature of sexuality, and not allow it to be degraded into a matter of selfish lust, which can destroy any spiritual aspirations we may have.
All this talk of regulations and discipline can leave one a little hesitant, one foot in, one foot out. Discipline has fallen out of fashion in our post-post-modern world. Whereas in previous generations it was seen as a rite of passage, or even as a fashion and calling (look at the strictness and sacrifice of the American peoples supporting the war effort in World War II as an example), now it is seen as a perversion of our natural desires, of our very striving for freedom.
I hope you may be able to see from my explanation of the regulative principles that we follow in the bhakti tradition how the case is actually the opposite. Without some consideration of the power of our instincts, and a practice thereof to control and harness this power, what we may call “freedom” is actually a servitude to the negative forces of lust, envy, greed, and pride that are within us and all around us.
Discipline has to be understood beyond its surface impressions in order to see how it gives us spiritual freedom. It is a means to a tremendous end, allowing us and helping us to fully understand our loving relationship with the Divine, with God. As the father of monastic life in the West, St. Benedict describes in his Rule:
Therefore we must establish a school of the Lord's service; in founding which we hope to ordain nothing that is harsh and burdensome.
But if, for good reason, for the amendment of evil habit or the preservation of charity, there may be some strictness of discipline do not at once be dismayed and run away from the way of salvation, of which the entrance must needs be narrow.
But as we progress in our monastic life and in faith, our hearts shall be enlarged and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God's commandments.
A firm yet healthy discipline of our body and mind helps to a deeper discipline of will and intention. To discipline our intention means to remove our selfishness. This also is not as black-and-white as it may seem on the surface, for we must also consider what it means to be selfish.
In other parts of the bhakti scriptures, it is described that the key regulative principle, over and above all
others, is to always do what is favorable for the development of one's devotion to God, and conversely always avoid that which is unfavorable. Selfishness is that which focuses the power of our will and intention solely on the pleasure and well-being of our own self, as if we are the center of the universe, rather on the pleasure and well-being of God and all of our living brothers and sisters in this world.
There is a certain risk to be walked through here, in that if we are striving to stifle our negative selfish tendencies, we may actually go too far in the opposite direction, and lose touch with the actual needs of our self, with the ambitions we hold which can still carry us running towards God if we know how to utilize them properly.
Swami Prabhupada further explains:
Real self-realization by means of controlling the senses is explained herein. One should try to see the Supreme Personality of Godhead and one's own self also.4
Our relationship with God is a two-way street. We are interested to know God fully, and He is interested to know us fully, and to help us offer the very best that we can to Him. It is our sacred duty to participate in this relationship, and it is a very healthy and mature attitude to always be exploring how we can best offer our talents and aspirations the very best of ourselves, to God, insuring we find the deepest fulfillment we can find as seekers and students of the Divine.
As I look forward into my own life, throwing off a certain sense of naivete and inertia, looking towards academic, social, and Interfaith opportunities to imbibe and expand Prabhupada's mission in New York City in whatever humble way I see fit, I carry a determination to know who I am, for better and for worse. We can't avoid, as we develop our sincere spiritual ambitions, the weeds in the garden of our heart which blur and corrupt these ambitions.
Our spiritual journey is meant to guide us into and beyond our lower nature, but not through evasion and aversion, but through a courageous and honest engagement with the loving support of our fellow community of seekers.
To come out the other side, into the best of our self that we can offer to God, we must allow the discipline we voluntarily impose on our body and mind to help also discipline our intention. What is that discipline of intention? To keep everything do wrapped in the spirit of service. As we develop the unique facets of our personal offering to God, we must keep this foundation strong in order to prevent us from wandering back into the deserts of our selfishness.
Discipline is, at its essence, an art of focus, of revelation of the best that we carry, not merely the denial of the worst we hide from ourselves and others. The principles we follow, spiritually and otherwise, to regulate our consciousness and its intention, give us a freedom that is not temporary and not relative, that is not material. It gives us the enlightenment which is our most natural instinct, and also the opportunity to give a humble yet powerful example to help others rise above.