A Logical Plea for The Benefits of Spiritual Self-Discipline
I choose not to have sex unless my intention would be to produce a child with my wife. In all other circumstances, I strive for a complete and healthy celibacy. I choose not to take any intoxicants, not alcohol or marijuana, or even tobacco or caffeine. I choose not to gamble, to speculate whatever finances or assets I may have. I choose not to eat any meat, fish, or eggs. I’ve been a committed vegetarian for over seven years now, and I’ve even flirted with veganism on occasion as well.
You may think I’m crazy, fanatical and hopelessly out-of-touch with the natural pleasures of the body and mind that seem to be our birthrights. As a practitioner of the bhakti-yoga tradition, my community, my teachers, and my calling ask of me a commitment beyond the normal, expected and comfortable.
It certainly isn’t easy to follow these regulative principles, but by doing so, I can understand what it means to be a human being and spiritual being and all that combination entails in today’s over-driven and over-stimulated world.
Spiritual life becomes very meaningful when we understand the blessings that discipline can bring into our consciousness. In the Bhagavad-gītā, Krishna, the Supreme Divine Person, 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 in everyday life. Krishna then goes on to suggest that to befriend the mind, to harness the power of the mind, through the regulation of the senses, can give us access to all the divine grace and mercy that he has to offer.
In his own words from the Gita:
“But a person free from all attachment and aversion and able to control his senses through regulative principles of freedom can obtain the complete mercy of the Lord.”
Discipline has fallen out of fashion in our post-post-modern world. In previous generations, it was seen as a rite of passage, or even a calling (look at the strictness and sacrifice of the American and British 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.
Without some consideration of the power of our instincts, and a practice to control and harness this power, what we may call “freedom” is actually 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 whatever surface impressions we may bring to the concept, in order to see how it can give us our spiritual freedom. It is a means to a tremendous end, allowing us to fully understand our loving relationship with the Divine, with God.
Let me briefly describe some of my own realizations and experiences trying to practice these principles:
Let me make this very clear, it’s an exceedingly rare person who can practice celibacy throughout his entire life. I am certainly not one of those souls, but I have learned quite a bit about myself—and about the meaning of my sexuality—by trying to practice this principle even if just for a few years.
The most important thing I have learned trying to be celibate is not that sexuality is the enemy of the seeker, but that it is a beautiful and sacred expression, and it must be honored in that way. Krishna describes in the Gita that any expression of sexuality which is not contrary to sacred principles represents his divine presence. In the bhakti tradition, we understand this as meaning one’s sexuality should only be expressed physically for the purpose of procreation.
I’m aware I may sound like a dowdy Vatican bishop here, but I believe that the standing of my tradition comes from a deep respect of the sexual power we have within us. This is not to say that some practitioners within my tradition, like in other traditions, have an unhealthy fear of their own sexuality, and express that fear in very destructive and counter-productive ways. Regardless of what specifications we may bring to our sexuality in concert with our spirituality, the essential idea is to fully understand the power and purpose of our sexuality so that we do not fear it, abuse it and misuse it.
Personally, I look forward to deepening the spiritual understanding of my own sexuality in married life, and I am greatly relieved to no longer have to play all the different “mating” rituals and games that surround what so many of think is a healthy and active sex life.
In our temple in Manhattan, often the most spiritual activity going on is the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. Here are a group of people who are fighting for the very best of their self, and who understand that the cheap thrills of alcohol have done nothing but give them embarrassment and not enlightenment.
I have to admit that my own dabbling in extra-sensory substances contributed to the inception of my spiritual journey, but soon my relationship with those substances became a mental dependency, and my journey became bogged down in my own set of “lost years.”
Now I feel like the haze that existed within my mind has finally faded away. My spiritual practice has given to me a sense of active engagement with reality, freeing me of the boredom and malaise that I tried to dull away with intoxicants. It has also helped me to understand the suffering that abuse of these substances has caused to people I know and love.
I have been helping to teach vegetarian cooking classes at New York University and Columbia University for the last three years, and through these experiences, I have learned so much about the multitude of benefits this lifestyle offers to our body, environment and spirituality. The vegetarian/vegan revolution is a rising tide, and I’m convinced that the progressive future of our human experiment depends more and more on its spread.
To not contribute to the harm of animals for the satisfaction of my own palate is the best expression of ahimsa, of nonviolence, that I can offer. To free my soul karmically from the often inexplicable and always inexcusable suffering that comes from factory farming and all its constituents is essential to the freedom of my heart. There are of course shades of gray when it comes to free-range cultivation of animals, and to that I keep an open mind.
Of all the principles, this is the easiest one for me to follow, simply because the culinary aspect of my spiritual tradition is particularly delicious. It has made me easily forget all the cheeseburgers I ate as a kid.
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 the scriptures of the bhakti-yoga tradition, 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 fellow brothers and sisters in this world.
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. We can begin by seeing what we can do to transcend our lower selfish nature. We do this not through evasion and aversion, but through a mature shedding of light upon these elements of our being that do not represent our essential, eternal self.
We must also not go too far in this process that we cut off our natural talents, abilities and ambitions. To become selfless doesn’t mean to become void of our unique personality and identity. Any teaching which veers too far into the direction of the impersonal becomes cold, hard, and void, and the discipline we may use and develop to this end closes off our heart to our own suffering and to the suffering of others.
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. A real discipline of intention means 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, a revelation of the best that we carry, and 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 or even material. It is the most complete and lasting freedom we can ever have. 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.
Let me conclude with two statements from exalted spiritual personalities of our human history on the real reasoning and result that comes from the regulation of our body and mind:
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.”
The great Vedic teacher A.C Bhaktivedanta 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.”
Spiritual discipline is an eternal custom, a practical gift from the examples of the great teachers of antiquity. It gives us access to the greatest pleasure, the divine and eternal love of God reflected upon and through all of life and reality, which makes us any earthly or carnal pleasure pale in comparison.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta