Daily Life as Spiritual Practice

By Ravi Ravindra

[Based on a convention talk delivered at Adyar, December 1997, and printed in another form in the Theosophist, May 1998.]

My view of spiritual practice in daily life has been well tested during the last three days. Three days ago I arrived in Delhi, but my baggage has still not arrived. So this is a good occasion to practice what I am about to say, and let me tell you that it is very important to think about spiritual things when one is in this kind of everyday situation.

It is always the profound truths that are really the lifeline to sanity; otherwise the triviality of ordinary daily life can submerge one completely. In fact, our soul is almost starved if we do not come back to those truths. If I have not thought about or read about a great idea for about twenty-four hours, I begin to feel as if I have been bereft of something, literally as if I am hungry. No doubt, each one of us has a certain frequency with which we need to feed the spirit.

During the past three days I have had a lot of occasions to ask Krishna what would he actually do in the situation I am now in. It is easy for him to say big things, and it is necessary for us to hear big things, but what would he actually do? Let me begin with a remark of his from the third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita (3.30):

Renouncing all actions to me, and being mindful of your deepest self, without expectation, without egotism, struggle without agitation.

Now, how do you struggle with the bureaucracy of Air Canada 1200 miles away without agitation, I would like to ask Krishna. Keep this problem in mind because Krishna's ideas are profound, but it is necessary to put them into practice. And if we do not appreciate that they are not easy to put into practice, then we will not be practical about them. We can quote the ideas, but how do we live them?

First of all, we each have our own Krishna. It would be a shame if we thought of Krishna as some kind of sectarian God, whom we need to obey. Sometimes devotees have this tendency, and they make him one God among other Gods. But anybody who has read the Bhagavad Gita with care and, not excessive reverence, but a joyous wrestling with Krishna, knows that Krishna is not some being out there. He himself states, "I am seated in the heart of everyone."

Krishna is really our deepest attraction. Krishna is that which draws or attracts one. Each of us has a feeling that there is a reason for our existence. This is not all just accident. If we do not, at least occasionally, think about this reason, trying to see how we relate to it, then we are not living with our Krishna. We may have some Krishna out there in some temple, but it is only a figure, an idol.

So what is my Krishna? Who should I be renouncing all my daily actions to? Each of us has a daily life; and for some of us losing our baggage is practically daily life because we are condemned to travel so much that it happens often enough. But in the midst of all this we must occasionally consider who is the Krishna to whom all of our actions are to be dedicated or renounced. In answering that question, there is much help in the next phrase: "being mindful of your deepest self." Being mindful of our deepest self is a way to attend to the purpose of our Krishna.

What is one's deepest self? This question is also not so easy. It is easy to see what is one's worldly, superficial self. Almost constantly one is fantasizing about what took place in the past, or what should have taken place, or what will take place in the future. Such fantasy is really much of one's ordinary life. And this is so even in the monasteries. Those of you who may have a hankering to become an ascetic and escape from the world should spend a week or two in a monastery, any monastery--Buddhist, Christian, or Hindu. Hindu ones are the easiest, but you can take any monastery, even pre-Counter-Reformation monasteries in Europe.

The daily life in monasteries is much the same as that outside them. And so it was even in the presence of Jesus Christ himself. We are told in the gospels that the disciples worried whether they were going to sit on his right-hand side or his left-hand side when they got to heaven. This is the kind of concern that occupies our daily life: competitiveness and concern about what I have gained or what I have lost. Am I looking good today? Am I being approved of? That is the concern of our daily life, and this daily life goes with us wherever we are. My daughter told me of proverb from the west African Republic of Mali: "Wherever I go, there I am." One always takes oneself everywhere.

So, in the midst of these daily activities, periodically one needs to think of Krishna, renouncing these activities to him. Otherwise, essentially what one is doing is trying to arrange one's life so that one always comes out on top. For example, speaking in the first person, I presume that the galaxies will so turn that sooner or later Ravindra is on top, a winner, a handsome fellow who everybody admires. Therefore, to renounce all this, at least occasionally, to Krishna, requires first of all being aware of one's inner landscape.

What is the way my life is actually lived? It almost does not matter what religious beliefs one has or what dogma one subscribes to. If you look at a person's checkbook and datebook, you know what their religion really is. Everything else is just theory. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna is asked: "How does a person of steady wisdom sit, how does he stand?" Our ordinary actions in daily life are really the heart of the matter. And it would be a mistake to imagine that daily life is a means to something extraordinary. Daily life is a practice. Daily life is also the goal of all spiritual life, rather than living in some cave in the Himalayas. If a person cannot actually practice this steady wisdom in the market place; when one's baggage is lost and no one knows where it is, one cannot practice it at all. It is not easy to do so, but there is no other practice.

Krishna's injunction is that we should "struggle without agitation." Elsewhere in the Mahabharata, Krishna says there is no real choice between struggle and the absence of struggle. He says the choice is really only between one and another kind of struggle or struggle at other levels. This is much like St. Paul's remark in one of his letters, that we have our struggles not only with human beings, but with principalities, with powers, with potentates, and so forth.

There are different degrees and kinds of struggle, whether it is the struggle to retrieve one's baggage from Air Canada or the struggle that takes place in one's mind, especially when there are mosquitoes or when one is hungry or thirsty. Each one of us is so occupied with little flea bites that we forget the very raison d'être for which we are here. Even the great Buddha, after so many incarnations that he was just about to become the Buddha, had enormous struggles. To be sure, the Buddha had to struggle with big devils, whereas in our lives there are only mosquitoes, because we have only little devils who worry about us. Similarly Jesus Christ had his struggles with the big Devil: temptations in the wilderness. The opposing forces are just about equally matched to the quality and strength of our effort. However, there are also forces that help us.

Much of our life is essentially a play of forces within our psyche, and these forces are both upward and downward. Of course, we do not always think of daily life negatively, because when one is in love, there seems to be nothing wrong with daily life, which is perfectly fine. Negativity is therefore an indication of what is wrong with our usual daily life. It is a lack of passion, lack of intensity, lack of engagement, and therefore a consequent dullness that we associate with a humdrum life. If one eats, sleeps, and procreates, then there is a certain kind of dullness to life. And this is what one wishes to escape from.

There is also a life of freedom, which is not occupied with reward or punishment and in which I do not do something just because it advances me in some way. Instead one does something for the sheer joy of it. All the great scientists, philosophers, writers, poets, and artists, in their best moments, do their work because they find it ecstatically beautiful. It is almost as if their life is not complete without doing these things.

It is only then that one can be said to be living a spiritual life. A spiritual life is anything that assists us in understanding our own Krishna. A spiritual life is one in which we intuit, even dimly, that there is a reason for our existence and that it is not merely accidental and in which this intuition is given more and more concrete form in our lives.

However, spiritual life also has a certain verticality to it. It is not merely changing impressions or changing countries, it is not even simply a change of scale, although that also helps very much. For example, just to remind ourselves of ordinary facts, every year more than 120 million human beings die. I am not thinking of any great wars or pestilences or famines, nothing dramatic. In this quite humdrum daily life, people just like you and me, with their children and grandchildren, their hopes and fears and ambitions, 120 million of us die. Even during these fifty minutes or so that I will be spending here, several thousand people will die. To be sure, more than the same number will also be born, because the population is increasing. This is a matter of a scale, not a change of level.

The vastness of the universe gives us no reason to be carried away with our own self-importance. But on the other hand, we see that everyone is dedicated to the idea that "I am the center of the universe, everything turns around me!" Part of the meaning of a sacred or spiritual life is a displacement of this idea. This is not so easy, because when I realize I am not the center of the universe, I am immediately anxious: "What meaning does my life have?" Or if I think I am the center of the universe, then I am also very anxious. Anxiety is really a law of each human being's existence, at least at our level. If Descartes was looking for a truth that is more universal than "I think therefore I am," he should have said, "I worry therefore I am." It is more or less everybody's psychological situation all the time.

Nevertheless, I have a place, I have a purpose for my existence, and I must fulfill my responsibility. To know yourself is primarily to understand how one's energies, including one's time and resources, are being spent. Meanwhile, so Krishna claims, he is seated in the heart of everyone. Even in the hearts of the employees of Air Canada, who cannot keep the baggage straight; even they, deep down, are representing Krishna. In the midst of all the superficiality of life and its little flea bites, deep down there is a reason for my existence. And Krishna sits there, somewhere, reminding me of this.

We all have a very deep-seated contradiction in the very center of our hearts. On the one hand, we are reaching for the Light, we wish to be bathed in Truth. But on the other hand, we say, "Well, truth . . . shoot, tomorrow. Today maybe I'll go watch a football game or something." There is nothing wrong with football, but much of our life is dedicated in quite a mechanical way to the status quo.

We talk about the search for truth, and it is practically a cliche to say that we need to undergo a deep-rooted transformation--especially in California, where 50 percent of the lectures and workshops seem to have the word "transformation" in the title. Everybody wants it, but we want to be transformed without the bother of being changed because we have a very deep-seated commitment to the status quo. This is the contradiction in us.

The search for the sacred, or making one's ordinary daily life into a spiritual practice, does not require anything very fancy. It does not require any particular posture, or standing on one's head, or eating cream cheese, or whatever else. It really requires an impartial self-observation from moment to moment. And if you can practice that for even a few minutes a day, that is a very good thing, a modest but right start.

Impartial self-observation can begin with anything, such as one's gestures--remember, Krishna was asked, "How does such a wise person sit, how does he stand?" It can begin with one's posture, with one's tone of voice, how one is with one's children, how one is with the cat or a plant, anything. Because we are each like a hologram. Every part of us contains our whole history, so you can begin anywhere. What is required is a certain impartiality because otherwise, in one's own eyes, one is always right, one always justifies everything. Impartial self-observation is thus the sine qua non of leading a spiritual life.

Of course the goal is very high and very large. Krishna warns us (Bhagavad Gita 7.19) that it comes only "at the end of many births," so we do not need to be concerned about reaching it today or tomorrow. Nevertheless, one needs to begin. Then Krishna says, "The wise person submits to me." When we do that, we recognize that all there is, is Krishna. But such a person is rare to find. The ideal is so to live one's life, so to interact with others--other people, beings, creatures, plants, animals, even Air Canada's employees--recognizing that they are all Krishna.

Such a high ideal can actually be dangerous if one does not keep a little bit of the ordinary practice in mind. That is why one needs to understand that a certain kind of knowledge is esoteric, not in the sense that somebody is hiding it from me, but rather that it requires an enormous amount of preparation. All philosophy is dangerous without some practice to go with it. It is good to have ideals, but keep in mind that action is only small, local, day-to-day, here-and-now.

There is no question that we are manipulated by leaders, governments, and people with their own agendas. Sometimes those agendas may be evil, perhaps but not knowingly so, just mindlessly and needlessly. In fact, much of the evil in the world is mindless and needless; it is not that anybody is specially against me, but they are not specially for me either. They are just carrying on, as most of us do most of the time.

Spiritual practice is mindfulness, the opposite of mindlessness. Mindfulness is not to be understood in a limited way so that, for example, if I move my hand, I am mindful of moving it. It is instead to live in society being mindful of the forces in the society. If there is manipulation, to take one's action correspondingly. This sort of social action is a perfectly legitimate thing for us to be engaged in. Otherwise, there would hardly be an occasion for the Bhagavad Gita. This is exactly what Arjuna has been asked to do for the purpose, as Krishna says, of proper order among the people. So he needs to engage in his battle, whether one understand it literally, as taking a weapon in hand, or as a struggle for social welfare and justice.

Existentialists and scientists are not inclined to think that there is a predetermined purpose for our lives that we should fulfill. They are more inclined to think that we create our own purposes. Traditional religious belief is that we have a soul which needs discovering or saving. The existentialist mode of thinking is that we do not necessarily already have a soul, but that we can make one. The English word "realize" is very happy from that point of view, because it contains both of those meanings. To realize ourselves as a spirit, whether we are creating it or discovering it, is the very activity that gives meaning to our existence and sense to our existence.

When we see a great deal of violence, we can easily lose heart. However, Christian Church fathers, whenever they talked about the seven deadly sins, included acedia, usually translated as "sloth," but meaning "losing heart." To lose heart is to say that there is no order in the universe, no intelligent force. If you are religiously inclined, it is a way of saying that God does not exist. If one is not religiously inclined, it is a way of saying there is no order in the universe. To search for the meaning of our existence is part of our purpose for being and to lose that "hope," to use the Christian expression is really a sin against the Holy Spirit because it is denying something very deep, not only in human beings, but in the whole of the cosmos.

The heart of the Bhagavad Gita's teaching is nishkama karma, which means literally "desireless action," that is, acting without egotism, without selfish desire (or kama). Our ordinary life--I hope that Krishna will forgive me for saying this--is really nishkarma kama "actionless desiring." So, what I am saying about daily life as spiritual practice is that it is to move from nishkarma kama to nishkama karma—from desiring without acting to acting without desiring.


Ravi Ravindra is Professor of Physics and Chair of the Department of Religion at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. His most recent books are Yoga and the Teaching of Krishna (Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1998) and Christ the Yogi: A Hindu Reflection on the Gospel of John (Inner Traditions, 1998).


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