In spiritual traditions the world over, austerities have been considered a key requirement for spiritual progress. Shankara, for example, revived the monastic tradition in India and there has been a clear lineage since. Buddha gave up his royal role and withdrew to the forest. St. Francis of Assisi did similar.
However, a large part of this has been because of the age or Yuga we’ve been in. We needed to withdraw from the thick mud of the world to go within. Our age has changed. In the 60s and 70s, millions of people took up meditation, gradually clearing theirs and group consciousness.
Since about 2007, more and more of those have woken up. The awake are effectively meditating 24/7, so the influence is speeding up. It is no longer necessary for most people to withdraw from the world, except perhaps for short retreats.
However, there is a more subtle form of austerity that has value.
The Sanskrit word is Tapas. Tapas is often translated as austerity but is better understood to mean “warming” – those actions which warm up inertia and get things flowing so they can transform. Most obviously, this is in our attachments. By warming the grasping and resistance, we soften the grip and can let go.
On the other hand, a practice of forced austerity is counter-productive as it’s not softening. Resistance increases inertia. Buddha first practiced deep austerities (pictured) before finding the Middle Way.
Yoga tells us (2v1-2): “Tapas, study of the Self, and devotion to God constitute the yoga of activity. The purpose of the yoga of activity is to cultivate samadhi and to weaken the causes of suffering.”
Samadhi is transcending, going beyond the mind and touching into source through practices like meditation. This softens those attachments making it a form of tapas. Culturing source also prepares us for awakening.
Yoga tells us the causes of suffering are ignorance of our true nature, identification with our individuality, attachment, aversion, and clinging to life. (2.3) As samadhi brings us the experience of our true nature, it directly addresses the first and softens the bonds of the rest. As Yoga tells us “Ignorance of our true nature is the source of the others, whether they are dormant, weak, suspended or active.” (2.4)
By also doing other actions that encourage this warming, we enhance the clarity and benefits of meditation and speed up progress. Not by disengaging from the world but by being with the world in a way that supports life and evolution (dharma).
When we let go of attachments and contractions, we wind down unresolved experiences. The latter comes up repeatedly in events and experiences in our daily life, trying to resolve. This is the wheel of karma that perpetuates suffering. But resolving more and more, we step off the cycle of suffering.
Further, this removes the obstacles to the support of nature and life becomes smoother and easier. This is why tapas can be seen as a way to gain merit.
We can also see clearing as purification. Purification clears the way and releases the binding influence of past experiences. This allows liberation not just spiritually but in all areas of our life.
Clearly, tapas continues to have a role. Not as a denial but as a warm oil massage. 🙂