A few years ago I saw a public television program that highlighted the differences between world religions by interviewing leaders of various faiths. It became clear that for many faiths, one day of the week is a holy day, and attendance at a place of worship on that day is the primary religious obligation. We can call this the one-day-a-week, single-activity approach. A Native American Indian leader interviewed about his faith said his tribe has no word for religion, as it is just the way they live—meaning that how they perform tasks throughout the day is influenced by religious principles and practices. This full immersion in faith defines the other end of the spectrum. We can call this the seven-days-a-week, all-activities approach.
I have found that an individual can practice Hinduism following either approach or chart a path anywhere in between. This Publisher’s Desk will offer suggestions for practicing Sanatana Dharma on the seven-day, immersive approach, highlighting a few of the many possibilities for integrating Hinduism into our daily tasks.
As we know, the more we practice, the more spiritual progress we make on the path to higher consciousness, eventual realization and liberation. Clearly, one of the benefits of the immersive approach is that we can incorporate more practices into our week than would otherwise be possible. A comparison to walking will illustrate this idea. A common recommendation for maintaining health is to walk 10,000 steps a day. If this is done as a separate activity before and after work or school, we may find we just don’t have the time for it. To overcome this challenge, health professionals recommend incorporating walking into the work or school day. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, park a half mile from your destination and cover that distance by walking. Which spiritual practices can be incorporated into our work or school day? Let’s first see how karma yoga, bhakti yoga and raja yoga can be folded into daily tasks.
Seva, selfless service, or karma yoga is universally encouraged in Hinduism. My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, comments on its purifying nature: “You purify yourself by being kind to others, being generous until it hurts, being benevolent, being ready to serve at all times until you are strained in serving. Put a smile on the faces of other people. Gain your happiness and your positive states of mind by making other people happy.” It is traditional to perform this activity at a temple or an ashram. Common seva tasks are helping cook and serve food, cleaning the premises and sewing garlands. In modern life, it can be difficult to find time to fulfill seva in this way, and therefore in many instances minimal seva is performed. The integration approach to seva is parallel to our walking example. Rather than regarding it as a separate activity, incorporate it into daily life at your place of employment or classroom. For modern times, I define seva as doing something helpful for another person that you are not expected to do. It is a voluntary action, one that is not required of you as an employer, employee or student. For example, welcome newcomers at work or school and help orient them to their new environment. Or, when the instructor really needs extra help on certain projects, to be sure to volunteer.
Devotional practice is called bhakti yoga. Gurudeva gives this insightful description: “Through bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, the combative mind becomes erased, absorbed into the consciousness of the One Self, the Being permeating all beings.” Bhakti yoga is traditionally performed at a temple or ashram—or in our home shrine—through attending puja, devotional singing, kirtan, etc. However, bhakti yoga can also be integrated into the workplace or classroom and hence allow us to perform more of it. At work you can have a picture of a Deity on your desk. If that is not allowed, then use an abstract symbol that reminds you of the Deity. Mentally offer prayers throughout the day to the picture or symbol. In school, when beginning an important exam, mentally pray to Lord Ganesha to help you do your best. And offer a simple chant before beginning all meals.
Concentration and meditation are phases of raja yoga that can be incorporated into daily life. Gurudeva shares this insight: “Concentration is an art that once attained leads naturally into meditation, contemplation and samadhi.” Concentration and meditation are generally performed in a group at a meditation center or individually at a temple or in the home. But they, too, can be integrated into daily activities. The traditional Hindu concept of mindfulness expands the practice of concentration to include restraining the wanderings of the mind in all activities. Mindfulness is directing full attention to what is going on in the present moment without thinking about or being distracted by anything else. For example, while at work, we keep focused fully on each task, not drifting into past memories or future plans. In listening to a lecture at school, we pay careful attention to absorb the message of the speaker. This mindfulness improves the quality of our work or study, and the more mindful we are through the day, the easier it is to quiet the mind during meditation.
Facing Karmas without Reacting
Next, let’s look at two general practices for making spiritual progress through our activities at work and school. The first is to resolve negative karmas by working through the various situations that naturally arise. One of the spiritual advantages of interacting with many people at work or school is that it gives a chance for our negative karmas to return to us. For example, when we are mistreated by others, we can refrain from retaliating and not even hold hard feelings. If we can accomplish this, we have freed ourself from that karma—it is resolved. How can we manage such high-minded responses? The first key is to look at the experience as one you were destined to go through, and this person was simply the instrument for its delivery. Had he or she not mistreated you in this way, someone else would have done so in the future.
The second general practice is to work daily on remaining centered amidst emotionally charged situations. As my guru would say, it is easy to be peaceful in a peaceful environment. To make real progress, we must learn to find peace in situations that are not peaceful at all. This practice strengthens our emotional self-control and improves the life of those around us.
Improving Our Character
Our final integrated practice is to work constantly to improve our character, the foundation upon which all spiritual growth rests. Character is defined as the sum total of mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. Gurudeva explains its importance: “This is the foundation; without this foundation there is no spiritual growth, no fruit. Trying to realize the highest realizations before laying this foundation would be like taking a lime tree that was cut off from its roots and putting it into a bucket and expecting it to bear fruit. Of course it will not.”
On the spiritual path, the first phase of effort is to build, improve and transform our character. To facilitate this effort, we have published A Workbook on Character Building (bit.ly/characterbuild1). It prescribes sixty-four character qualities that we all can strive to improve. The first ten, for example, are being abstemious, accepting, affectionate, appreciative, attentive, available, calm, cautious, chaste and clean. Our activities at work or school provide excellent opportunities to strengthen such qualities, particularly those we are weak on.
Each week when you plan out the activities to be accomplished at work or school, also create a to-do list of integrated Hindu practices you will focus on for the coming seven days. This habit will remind you to take advantage of every minute of the day to accelerate your progress on the spiritual path.