What Matters Most: Self-realization or Spiritual Activism?

By Swami Ramananda

In this pair of articles, Swami Ramananda and Claudia Huddleston explore the issue of spiritual activism as a form of Karma Yoga. For a long time, both these yogis have manifested their spiritual practice in the world. Recently they participated in an online course called, “Ethics and Vows for the Modern Life,” led by Michael Stone, a teacher of Buddhism and Yoga. This course served as a catalyst for Swami Ramananda and Claudia to consider deeply the application of ancient Yoga teachings, particularly yama and niyama, to modern social problems. Swami Ramananda summed up Michael’s approach to Yoga practice as, “very oriented around the idea that our practice is vital and meaningful when done in the context of the world we live in right now.” This is a constant and evolving process.

“The goal of Integral Yoga is to have an easeful body, a peaceful mind, and a useful life.” Of course these are just words on a page, given to us by Swami Satchidananda—that is, until we begin to reflect and to practice. We practice asana, pranayama, and meditation. We transform our relationship with our bodies and our minds. We ask, How can I be useful? How can I serve? What can I offer? When our reflection becomes an intention and the intention becomes an action, we can answer with love and compassion, which is at the heart of real spiritual activism.

At a satsang in New York I raised the question, “What matters most to you?” I spoke about the importance of clarifying what we value and reflecting on the ultimate purpose of our lives. Speaking to a group of yogis, I was not surprised that someone suggested right away that moksha, or spiritual liberation, was most important. We all might understand liberation, or Self-realization, to be the goal of Yoga, but what does that really mean to us? It remains a vague and distant idea that may have little relevance to our daily lives. How do we actually go about pursuing enlightenment?

We often think of Self-realization as something that happens passively when we still the mind, as the Yoga Sutras imply. But it is better understood as an active response to life—a way of bringing to life, or embodying, the qualities we associate with our spiritual nature: compassion, peace, joy, and so on. True awakening is not something that happens in isolation. It takes place as a product of both our Yoga practice and our conscious choices in relation to one another and our environment.

Imagine how it would feel for the spiritual Self to be as tangible and active as the body and mind when we are pursuing our goals. Every time we are fully present to life and act with mindfulness, we take a step toward that reality. Our true nature is expressed each time we recognize, with gratitude, all the ways we are blessed and allow that sense of abundance to overflow in the form of generosity with others.

Pausing and breathing to allow a sense of peace to arise in a quiet moment marks a beautiful step toward liberation. Bringing more compassion into an interaction while we are standing in line at the store or waiting in heavy traffic is a genuine stride in spiritual growth. Taking the time to be fully present and experience the joy of playing with children or listening deeply to a friend who needs to talk is an enlightened choice. These are examples of how spiritual realization is pursued in each moment that we act while holding in our hearts a clear vision of what matters most to us.

Michael Stone powerfully articulates the importance of bearing witness to the world we live in, with all its injustice, suffering, and corruption—as well as its magic and majesty. He describes, in detail, how a committed spiritual life includes taking responsibility for our participation as a member of this planet. In his book, Yoga for a World Out of Balance, he writes, “It’s hard to wrap our minds around the way transportation patterns, digestion patterns, pollution, consumption, even the dinner table itself, impact the web we call life.  Without attention to such connections, choices become life-destroying rather than life-affirming…”

Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2015 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.

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