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Mysticism has been associated in the popular mind mostly with monasteries, retreats, ashrams, caves, and similar places where novices and would-be yogis foregathered. Thus it came to be looked upon as a way of escape from the domestic difficulties, business troubles, and emotional disappointments that seem so inseparable from human existence. Those who could not cope with the ups and downs of daily life, with the shocks of unexpected misfortune or the death of beloved relatives, abruptly detached themselves from society and fled to the relative peace of monastic life. Those who could not qualify themselves to earn their livelihood by burdensome physical or mental labor, renounced further effort and raised both their failure and their incompetence to the pedestal of virtue by proclaiming that they had renounced the world with all its wickedness!
Nevertheless, deviously or directly, all these types came to the world for alms and food and clothing, for which the world continued to struggle, thus rendering itself able to provide them with their needs. Nor did they hesitate to proclaim a lordly spiritual superiority—quite disproportionate at times to their own personal defects—over the worldlings who financed or fed them.
If people have undergone great emotional disappointments or much worldly suffering, they have every excuse for fleeing away to the peaceful refuge of monasticism, usually symbolized in the East by the donning of a yellow robe. What cannot be excused is, first, if they rest for the remainder of their earthly existence in such “escapism”; and second, the large number of unholy “holy” people who hypocritically imitate such persons and put on yellow robes, cover their heads with ashes, or appoint themselves to manage ashrams in order to beg, covertly or openly, their way through life—or worse, so as to exploit the pious or the aspirational.
They contribute nothing to society and follow no inner quest for themselves, but batten on the superstitious hopes and panicky fears of the ignorant multitude by bestowing utterly worthless pseudo-blessings. Thus they unconsciously exhibit the very materialism that they are supposed to avoid! And they have their parallel types in the mystic cults and occult circles of the West, too. When mysticism becomes merely a way of escape from difficulties that sharply demand to be faced, or when it breeds an atmosphere wherein pious charlatans can pretend to be hallowed mouthpieces for God, it is time to call a critical halt.
Mental Quiet Alone Is Not Enough
Mental quiet alone, however perfect, is of itself not enough. People who are content with it are not complete. For life is here and now, and to live only in mystical delights in the belief that they are the ultimate goal is to live only at the dream level. The consequence is that the external everyday life of action is kept outside them; it is left untouched or even regarded with positive hostility. If we understand with the philosophers that meditation is for life, it is well; but if we can understand only with the mystics that life is for meditation, then it is not well.
There are those who believe philosophy to be a synonym for idleness. Yet its quest is a virile affair—not a resignation to lethargy, a dissolution into inertia, nor an excuse for inaction. This is a quest that does not lead into ascetic negation of the world but into philosophic mastery of such negation, not into self-centered apathy but into altruistic, wise, and useful activity. Whereas ascetic mysticism rejects the world, integral philosophy annexes it. Mysticism must become a part of life, not an evasion of it.
Every person has to act in some way; it is impossible for anyone to live without action. The ascetic, who thinks he or she has renounced it, has merely substituted one kind of action for another. This being the case, philosophy says it is better to align the motives for action with the highest philosophic ideal. All lesser motives are merely means to some end, whereas this alone is an end in itself.
Ascetics who, as an end in itself, cut off contact with the world and shrink from its affairs, will surely drift into sterile negation; whereas the ones who regard it only as an instrumental aid to personal peace and mental self-discipline will intermittently return to the world they deserted and embrace its affairs. Thus, they may test the true worth of their attainment by adjusting it to active life, assure themselves whether the calmness that they have gained in a quiet corner can be kept in a noisy one, and help those who are unable to escape even temporarily from the world.
Now the sheltered life of an ashram may weaken a person for the struggle of existence, or it may strengthen him or her. Everything depends on the instruction, or lack of it, given in the ashram, the breadth of the external experience, and the internal status achieved by its director.
In any case, such methods of mass retreat are unsuited to us of the modern world and especially the Western world. It is better at least to remain human beings, since our feet are still encased in shoe leather and we have to walk this earth. Was it not a wise German who said: “He who has experienced nothing is made no wiser by solitude."
Dwight Goddard, translator of A Buddhist Bible, after having qualified himself by study in China and Japan among the monks, ascetics, hermits, and scholars, made several attempts to found an ashram, a Buddhist retreat, both in the mountains of Vermont at Thetford and on the shores of California at Santa Barbara. Later he wrote me that he had most unfortunate experiences in each case, so he decided in the end that America was not ready for such an experiment.
This confirms my own view that it is not because the West is not ready for such things, but because it has outgrown them, that it has refused to flee into asceticism and escapism. Each incarnation carries its special and necessary lessons for us, however disagreeable they may be. Therefore, the attempt to shirk those lessons by falling into an escapist attitude and environment is in no way praiseworthy.
I am not undervaluing the past, however. It has a definite value. But if we are to progress, we have only to learn from it and then put it aside—not to live in it stubbornly, blindly. We must look to present needs.
Modern people can find no foothold in systems that are based on antique needs and that seem so utterly remote from contemporary life; in fact, if they are wide-awake, they not only dislike them but frequently even distrust them.
We must beware of such atavism, such seeking to escape by a regression from the struggle of modern conditions to the shelter of primitive ones. The goal of our fitful human existence cannot be so narrow and so negative as to idolize the life of a lotus-eater, to lull people into continual trances or half-trances, or to let them meditate themselves into a permanent condition of dreamy futility. Nor can it be to indulge all one’s years in the joyous hiatus of emotional titillations. Rare, however, are those determined mystics who succeed in emancipating themselves from the fanatical extreme of excessive meditation without falling into the other error of abandoning it altogether.
Great indeed is the person who can escape from the pitfall of being carried away by ecstatic feelings into an anesthesia of social action. The ascetic who sits in negative virtue and safe isolation from the world’s fray may feel happy, but the sage who spurns such egoistic satisfaction and serves others in its tumultuous midst provides a better ideal. Such a life is a creative one and is not stippled with the pale hues of futility.
©1984/1985, 2019 by Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.
Revised and expanded 2nd edition, published by:
Inner Traditions International. www.innertraditions.com.
Instructions for Spiritual Living
by Paul Brunton
No matter where we are in our spiritual development, we all have questions about our practice and what we are experiencing - both the challenges and opportunities. How can I overcome my struggles to meditate more deeply? Is there a need for a guru, or can I rely on myself? Can I trust my intuition? Is it possible to hear the "Inner Word", the voice of the soul, and how can I be sure that's what I'm hearing? Is the Higher Self in the heart? Offering trustworthy answers to these and many more questions, renowned spiritual teacher Paul Brunton provides instructions to guide one's development in three fundamental areas of the spiritual path: meditation, self-examination, and the unfolding of awakening. (Also available as an Audiobook and in Kindle format)
About the Author
Paul Brunton (1898-1981) is widely esteemed for creatively integrating the world’s spiritual teachings and meditation systems into a clear, practical approach best-suited for contemporary life. He is the author of more than 10 books, including the bestselling A Search in Secret India, which introduced Ramana Maharshi to the West. For more info, visit https://www.paulbrunton.org/