Western sages are few and far between. One of Guruji’s favourites from the last century, is the mystic master GI Gurdjieff. His teachings dovetail beautifully with meditation and yoga. Gurdjieff has many yogic practices but one unique articulation is, ‘think from the work, and not from life‘. To keep your spiritual values alive means to keep a ‘truthful focus.’ When we think from life then we live in fear of loss–our possessions, our relationships, our security. We are anxious all the time.
Gurdjieff encourages us to avoid letting the mind become absorbed in mundane matters that bring up ego–likes and dislikes, jealousy, tearing thoughts, anger, self-preservation, pride, and other emotions. Most sages agree that it is our negative reactions to outer events that create our experience of life. Our painful reactions are ego, manifesting as negative emotion. Ego separates us from the heart, from love and from the Self. The first step in shifting the mind from the mundane to the mystical is to look within.
Gurdjieff called on his students to ‘work’ on themselves. He encourages them to evaluate all choices and decisions against the highest choice, Self-remembering. If we can hold to the highest we make choices for love, for peace, for kindness and wisdom. When we work against ego we are less likely to be led astray into painful encounters and situations. Gurdjieff has said:
“I will tell you one thing that will make you rich for life. There are two struggles: an Inner-world struggle and an Outer-world struggle…you must make an intentional contact between these two worlds; then you can create a new world.
The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, born a slave, had a uniquely surrendered attitude to the outer world. Epictetus gave teachings similar to Patanjali in that he encourages his students to avoid negative thinking and habits. He said that there is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.
Perhaps this is why so many great sages and saints guide us toward compassion. We all, at times, ignore, disregard and reject the most wise counsel when we shouldn’t. Epictetus said that every difficult event has two handles. For example, say your brother betrays you. If you hold onto one handle you walk down the path of betrayal, anger and vengeance. If you choose the other handle you walk toward peace, forgiveness and love. Which one are you going to hold?
Guruji places great importance on Satsang and has often said, ‘if you can hold a Satsang then create one, if you cannot create one, then join one’. In Satsang seekers unite in a common goal to know the Self, to contemplate the Self, to meditate on the Self. The energy created by a united spiritual purpose is a dynamic power that is loving and wise.
The other night in Satsang Guruji drew on the aphorisms and teaching of Epictetus. Epictetus also talked about the value of keeping good company, or keeping the company of the highest truth. Guruji has often said, ‘the great beings are humanity’s greatest treasure’. Epictetus agrees when he says:
The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.
Attach yourself to what is spiritually superior, regardless of what other people think or do. Hold to your true aspirations no matter what is going on around you.
The teachings of Epictetus are pure jnan, a breath of fresh air. I felt my mind enter a wide space of mental clarity. I was surprised to discover that I preferred them to Patanjali, who often seems like hard work. Epictetus sweeps away useless thoughts and leaves behind a sweet peace.
Guruji summarised his teaching by saying ‘Think in such a way as to promote your own happiness’. To live fearlessly is to live in the Shakti. No matter where we live or what we do, creativity, inspiration and dynamism arise from a state of remembering the Self not forgetting it, not sacrificing it for the sake of the material world. To remember our highest values is to live in the state of oneness and peace. This is what sages both East and West want for us.
The wise counsel of Epictetus
- The universe is but one great city, full of beloved ones, divine and human by nature, endeared to each other.
- In our power: our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions. Not in our power: bodies, possessions glory, and power.
- Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of an impression, but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Leet me see what you are and what you represent. Let me try you.’
- It is not death or pain that is to be feared, but it is the fear of death and the fear of pain.
- When you close your doors and make darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your genius is within. And what need have they of light to see what you are doing?