I have just completed my annual week of seclusion. By seclusion I mean a personal and private spiritual retreat in prayer, meditation, study and silence (both outward and inward). It was Paramhansa Yogananda (whose teachings I follow as a disciple) who uttered the words which are the title of this piece: “Seclusion is the Price of Greatness.”
So, yes, I had a “great” seclusion! Ok, that’s a funny. By “greatness” I suppose Yogananda (PY) must have meant many things but for me I see that in this time spent alone with God and Guru, the greatness of one’s spirit are “made manifest.” When one’s only task is to “go within,” one has the opportunity to feel the vastness of Spirit that lies behind the mundane details and preoccupations of daily life.
Is it easy? Is it fun? Well, no, and no. There’s a lot more than just “joy within you”. One must combat desires, restlessness, aching limbs and back, gnawing hunger, withdrawal symptoms from one’s minor vices, and on and on. There are fears, too. As PY put it, “the soul LOVES to meditate but the ego hates to meditate.” There is a fear of losing oneself in the inner silence; there arises sudden and inexplicable “needs” to do housework, to get up from meditation and adjust the curtains, or to cook something one has never bothered to make (or even liked) before! Demons of regrets and self-judgment rise to slay the peace of meditation. They must be grappled with and the best solution is to call upon God and guru and to remain steadfastly calm and focused at the spiritual eye. One must refuse to yield to their portrayal of your self as unworthy or unfit for spiritual freedom and upliftment.
Yet, for all the obstacles, there come meditation periods when grace kicks in, thoughts mysteriously retreat into silence, and the inner light of joy dawns like the rising sun in summer! Deep and long prayers to the guru, by visualization or inner feeling, bring floods of peace and wisdom-insights. Calmness, deep and abiding, descends into every body cell like invisible healing rays of divine life. Life bubbles up like a spring of crystal clarity, with eyes seeing the world afresh and anew.
During seclusion I can chant without having to keep in rhythm for others chanting with me. I can go into deep whisper chanting; single-note chanting, off-key, on-key but all welling up as if the words were never sung before by anyone except perhaps my guru, and my teacher, Swami Kriyananda. If I awaken in the middle of night I can sit up and meditate without disturbing anyone!
This last week’s seclusion is the first to take place for me after the death of Swami Kriyananda last April (2013). He feels more present now because he is freed from the confines of his frail and elderly body.
Most years I bring one deeper book of Yogananda’s or Kriyananda’s to study from and find inspiration. This year I felt to dispense with reading except a little light reading (about the history of India) to give my mind a period break from the intensity of meditation and inner silence.
In my seclusions (which I have taken each year for a week since, hmmm, the late 80’s) food is greatly simplified. I used to do strict fasting but that puts more attention on the body and feeding it than a simple, light, fresh fare. Food is fortunately for me not much of a distraction, as I have never been a cook. In seclusion and at home I use my Vitamix blender which easily combines fresh fruit and vegetables for rapid and painless consumption. I also steam some veggies but minimize carbohydrates (avoiding bread or rice), eliminate sweets, and use few spices. I still have my morning cup of coffee.
In some past years I come into seclusion very tired and spent from intense activity. Not this year, fortunately. At such times it is not uncommon to need one or two days of rest before commencing more seriously longer periods of meditation. Concentration in meditation is “hard work, but good work!” This year I felt a touch of fatigue, mostly mental, but I also felt the effects of detoxing as I began my lean fast of wheatgrass and other green-healthy yummies after Thanksgiving feasting. This past quickly, however.
During seclusion I have the opportunity to go much deeper in my yoga practices: a daily stretching routine, for sure, but, more importantly meditation. This includes various pranayams as commonly taught and the particular ones emphasized by Yogananda and my teacher. The most important of these is kriya yoga, for which there are several levels of kriya. I can take the time to explore, go deep and go beyond all techniques into silence. I have the luxury, too, born of the depth and time and space of seclusion together with guru’s grace to practice as inwardly guided. Perfect stillness steals upon one at the most surprising moments. The end of any given exhalation may be blessed with perfect stillness of breath and mind into One.
Alone with God, the day (indeed, the week) is yours and His. I find, therefore, that I follow a natural rhythm of concentration and relaxation, both in meditation and in calm, inward activities between meditation periods. Such activities include going for a run, doing yoga stretches, splitting wood and tending the wood stove (it’s quite cold this year here), preparing and having my simple meals, showering and even taking rest breaks. I follow the inner movement of energy and thereby establish a natural pace that isn’t forced or apt to create inner tension. In meditation I can alter techniques and even suspend them if I sense the approach of the King of Peace.
This year I’ve been especially inspired to focus on Yogananda’s presence and that too of Swami Kriyananda. Asking each for guidance at various points during meditation and throughout the day. I do this by silent, inner dialogue or prayer; or, other times, by visualizing their image in silence, wordlessly asking for guidance or for the feeling of their presence. While this is always a part of any disciple’s sadhana (“spiritual practices”), for me this year it taken front and center place.
I have returned home now, today, Friday, December 6. For days with temperatures below freezing the mountains with a carpet of fresh snow, and Mt. Baker, were in their glory. At dawn and dusk, they’d be wreathed in pink and red hues, as if to “reach up for the heights!” I have been blessed with two special graces in this week: both very private, but both fundamental to my life’s unfoldment. I pray that I can carry them forward as a permanent grace.
So, how do you take a seclusion? Well: one day at time? I suggest you start at home with a morning (or a few hours) of meditation, prayer and study. Chose a time when no one else is around. Do this once or more during the year. As you feel, expand into a whole day and then, later, into a weekend.
In addition, go on retreat with others at least once a year (twice a year is better). On retreat you get accustomed to deeper spiritual practices and maintaining an uplifted consciousness. Some retreats are silent retreats and these are very helpful. (Here in Seattle all of our retreats are silent retreats.)
If you try to bite off too much too fast, you might crash and burn. By this I mean that the mind (and body), unaccustomed to sensory deprivation, will rebel and you might find yourself plopping down and reading a romance novel, sitting at the computer surfing the net, binging on junk food, or otherwise becoming discouraged for not feeling any inspiration, or being able to meditate deeply etc. etc. Build your seclusion muscles naturally and gradually because outer and inner relaxation is the key to success.
Most yogi-friends who I know don’t take their first real seclusion sometimes for years after establishing the daily habit of meditation and adopting a yogic lifestyle (usually vegetarian diet, plus fellowship with like-minded souls, selfless service to the work of yoga and so on).
In addition to having spiritual reading material, plan to do some journaling, too. Meditate in bite size chunks so as not to exhaust the brain and nervous system, or to create aches and pains in the protesting body joints.
Should you take seclusion at home? Only if that’s your best choice. In principle and practice, best to get away from your usual environment. Find a place that is sacred and dedicated to meditation and devotion. Ananda’s retreat centers (near Assisi, Italy, Pune, India, and Nevada City, CA) have various ways to accommodate retreats (including classes, workshops and training) and personal retreat or seclusion. Recently, the Ananda Meditation Retreat near Nevada City re-opened for personal retreat and private, personal seclusion. Here in the greater Seattle area on Camano Island, we have a Hermitage (a single family home) dedicated and available for this purpose. As a result of having the Hermitage so near to the Ananda Community in Lynnwood, WA, many more members have begun the practice of taking seclusion than ever before.
The “greatness” PY speaks of has, as I said initially, many levels of meaning. When we are too much around others, too much involved and identified with our work and family, we lose sight of the innate greatness of our soul (and that of others!). Most people on this planet have never been alone for more than a short time. So, for some it can be daunting even to think about. The price of greatness is to know that we are never alone, for God is always with us, within us, and all around. The price of knowing is seclusion. The opportunity for seclusion is privilege and a grace. Embrace it!
Your very Self,