Recently I had a disturbing conversation with a man who considers himself an ardent devotee of Arunachala and Ramana Maharshi. He was convalescing after a serious bout of illness and, amazingly, since he’d been ordered to give up some seriously toxic habits in order to heal, he was actually looking better than I had ever seen him. Yes, he’d lost significant weight, there was a sparkle in his eyes, and a new glow to his skin. Jubilantly, he told me he’d been cured by a naturopath after a team of expensive allopathic doctors had only worsened his condition and given him a shocking prognosis. Of course I was thrilled to hear he was well again, and I told him I had been sending him strong good vibes ever since I had heard of his illness. As we were talking, softly, since this was close to the Main Hall, a bunch of visitors to the Ashram passed by, one man almost screaming on his cell phone. I gestured towards him, asking him to move to the bookstore, where he would not disturb those who needed quiet for their inner practice.
Whereupon my friend looked askance at me; you know, he said admonishingly, Ramana never told people how to behave, so why are you telling them to be silent? I said, silence is an Ashram rule in certain areas, although no one seems to care enough to enforce it. And don’t forget that Ramana’s highest teaching is Atma-Vichara, which involves a profoundly subtle examination of reality. The time will come when, as a result of the right effort and plenty of grace, all of us will be just as equanimous as Ramana was—but do keep in mind that when he came to Arunachala at the age of sixteen, he was already a sage. As for me, and many others who share concerns about the lack of silence here, we are not yet done with our inner work and need at least some areas within the Ashram where we can be quiet
He didn’t argue further. However, although he is chronologically my elder, his expression reminded me of a sullen rebellious adolescent fuming because his mother has dared to correct his view—which reminded me that someone close to him had mentioned he was impossible to live with, since he refused to follow basic house rules, etc. My god, I thought, no wonder he got so sick! You see, this same person had told me that when this man was first warned that his drinking had to be toned down if he wanted to stay healthy, he had not listened, claiming he was safe because he had Arunachala on his side. But Arunachala is a fierce god and has no compunction in whipping us hard when we fall out of line—of course, for our own eventual good.
It struck me too that those who knew me in my wild days would have found this conversation hysterically funny: here I was, defending the use of rules, when I myself had made it a religious point to flout every rule imposed upon me in my early days! But what rules did I disobey? Those of my family, community and elders/seniors at school/college/work, but only because I found them misogynistic, cruel and unfair. But, when the intense pain of life shoved me into my interior and I began to obsessively study the ancient teachings, I also realized how important it was to sternly discipline my unruly egoic self in order to get my life back in order and to pursue the goal of peace.
Rules are meant to set you free, a great Zen master said. As I understand his statement, it is that human beings on the inner path in particular need to follow certain disciplines if we are to succeed in achieving our goals. Aghoris, wild Tantric practitioners who “sit at the left hand of God” deliberately flout all rules and conventions, and their path is known as uphill, fierce and terrible. Very few qualify to do what they do—which is to travel bravely into the bowels of darkness and to forcibly transmute it into light. But for the rest of us, following rules that make good sense to us and are flexible is vitally important. Still, if you find yourself adopting a rule that does not help you to move forward, it’s best to dump it immediately and take up other disciplines that serve your practice.
Our true nature, the mystics say, is no less than blissful pure awareness. Unfortunately this treasure trove is covered up with millions of layers of delusion and illusion. Our job is to uncover our own treasure and then to permanently enjoy the peace and joy that result from being permanently free of the primal drives of desire and fear. If we choose to disregard the advice of those who have gone before us, without even bothering to examine or investigate it for ourselves, that would be like a young man who wants to study quantum mechanics, but willfully disregards the priceless research of pioneers in the field. Only the ego prevents us from doing what is best for us, and when we break down all barriers between ourselves and others, and use the valuable findings of the sages and mystics to accelerate our journey into the Spiritual Heart, we are doing the highest service to our own Self.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who promises to help us reach the blazing and blissful core of reality!