What could success in the fine arts possibly have to do with progress in our religious life?
MY GURU, SIVAYA SUBRAMUNIYASWAMI had the gift of bringing down to Earth in a practical way the guidelines for becoming a more spiritual person. It is easy to talk high philosophy in Hinduism: “Man is God. We are divine,” and so forth. It is easy to say profound things such as, “You are a being that has unlimited power within you.” However, to put these principles into practice to the extent that we really are a more spiritual person this year than we were a year ago—that is the challenge, and that is what we will explore in this article.
The ability to help us with that is part of Gurudeva’s genius. He gives us high philosophy along with pragmatic guidelines and in the process keeps us feeling good about ourselves. He never took the approach that we have weaknesses and failings and therefore are imperfect. He makes the opposite point: we are divine beings, meaning we are the soul or spiritual being. However, we also have other qualities that come along with being human. We have instincts, we have an intellect, we have an ego, and we need to keep them all under control so that our soul, our spiritual nature, dominates our days. As Gurudeva says, “Peace is control, and control is freedom.”
My reflections on dance and discipline were first shared in a 2003 talk I gave in California at an Arangetram, a young Hindu lady’s first public dance performance. Her accomplishment inspired me to outline five ways that the attitudes involved in studying dance and the attitudes involved in striving to make progress on the Hindu spiritual path are indeed the same. Following Gurudeva’s style, I took a practical approach to the subject. Afterwards, members of the audience came forward to express how applicable these insights were to their own spiritual quest.
Gurudeva himself was, in his youth, an accomplished dancer. Years later, on special occasions he would dance in the Indian classical Manipuri style. And when he spoke about dancing, he would regularly make the comment that in learning dance you are expecting and, in fact, paying the dance guru to point out your weakest areas, not to compliment you on what you are doing well. As our satguru, he was providing that same guidance in our spiritual life.
Gurudeva’s comment leads perfectly into our first comparison of the spiritual path to the study of dance, which is the attitude toward strengths and weaknesses. Does a young woman become a better dancer by focusing on the movements she does well? Of course not. She must focus on the movements she has not perfected and strive to improve them. She becomes a better dancer not by focusing on her strengths but on her weaknesses.
Looking at the spiritual path, let’s take the example of someone who is happy to help coordinate activities at a nearby Hindu center. However, when she attends puja she doesn’t feel much devotion for the Deity. Her strength is service, and her weakness is devotion. To further advance she needs to focus less on service and more on activities that will deepen her devotion, such as singing bhajans, making garlands for the temple using flowers grown at home, and sewing clothes for the Deity.
A second comparison is the attitude toward improvement. A good dancer has the attitude that she can perform a dance better than she has ever done it before. She feels there is always room for improvement and her movements can always be further refined.
Looking at the spiritual path, let’s take as our example the principle of ahimsa, nonviolence. It is indeed a central principle of Hinduism. Of course, most of us do not indulge in physical violence. Therefore, we may conclude that ahimsa presents no challenge to us.
However, let’s look more closely at the definition of ahimsa, which is not harming others by thought, word or deed. This clear and complete definition points out that even though we may not be harming others with our actions, we can take the attitude of striving to improve our behavior even more by carefully watching our speech and avoiding harming others through our words. The most common forms of verbal violence are teasing, belittling, gossiping and backbiting. Every reduction we make in harming others through our words produces spiritual progress.
A third comparison of the spiritual path to the study of dance is our attitude toward mistakes. Many beginning dancers are self-conscious about mistakes. They make a mistake and get flustered and can’t concentrate on the rest of the dance class. A good teacher will point out that such errors are natural; all dancers make them. With the teacher’s encouragement, they overcome the fear of mistakes and take on a more mature attitude, which is if they misstep during a difficult movement, they resolve to perform the movement better next time. Each mistake becomes an opportunity to improve their craft.
For all of mankind, no matter where one is on the path, spiritual advancement comes from learning from one’s mistakes in life. Unfortunately, this process is often inhibited by the wrongheaded idea that we are not supposed to make mistakes. A common first reaction to making a mistake is to become upset, get emotional about it, or, if it is a serious blunder, to feel burdened, even depressed. We need, however, to be like the dancer and simply resolve to do better next time. Thus, a good second reaction is to think clearly about what happened and why and to find a way to not repeat the mishap in the future. Perhaps we were not being careful enough, so we resolve to be more prudent next time to prevent the problem from recurring. Perhaps we did not know something, and the experience gives us new knowledge to be used next time.
A fourth comparison is that dance, like spiritual practice, involves the disciplined control of willpower, awareness and life force. In dance, willpower is used to move the body through the challenging positions in time with the music and with grace. Our awareness needs to constantly focus on the meaning of the song and how that meaning is being expressed in our facial, hand and body language. Life force must constantly move through the body in a controlled manner. In fact, in teaching basic dance movements, Gurudeva would stress that first you move the life force, the prana, with your mind, and that prana moves the arm or leg.
For the spiritual side of disciplined control let’s look at the practice of meditation. Willpower manifests in our ability to sit in meditation without moving. We need to focus awareness constantly on the object of our meditation without letting our thoughts wander off into other areas. Life force is controlled through the process of pranayama, regulating our breathing, and pratyahara, withdrawing our energies from our external senses into our spiritual center.
A fifth comparison is that both dance and spiritual striving are nonintellectual. You do not become a good dancer through reading a book. Though some study is involved, the focus is on the actual practice of dancing. Our physical body is significantly changed and gains new abilities through the many years of practice required to become an accomplished dancer.
Reading philosophical books is also part of making progress on the spiritual path. However, most important is the regular practice of spiritual disciplines, called sadhana. Our emotional, intellectual and spiritual natures are significantly changed through performing sadhana for many years. Gurudeva’s satguru, Siva Yogaswami of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, stressed this by telling certain devotees whom he saw spending too much time reading philosophy, “It’s not in books, you fool.” He urged them to sit, to be still, to control the mind.
The disciplines of dance are well defined, and they include exercises in strength, flexibility, grace and technique. Hinduism’s spiritual disciplines can also be broadly divided into four categories: good conduct, service, devotion and meditation.
In conclusion, we have looked at five ways in which the attitudes of mastering dance and progressing on the spiritual path are similar. An important area everyone can benefit from is improving our weaknesses. Apply this to your life by choosing one aspect of your practice which you feel you need to improve. For example, perhaps on some days you worship in the home shrine before leaving the home and on other days you skip it. Resolve to become more disciplined and spend time every single day in the home shrine. Once you are regular in this practice, you have strengthened a weak area and made tangible spiritual progress, just as, little by little, a great dancer improves her performance.