Emaciated Siddhartha, photo by Akuppa John Wigham
Emaciated Siddhartha, photo by Akuppa John Wigham

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.

Long before the dark age, tapas was a recommended practice. It is one of the Niyama or observances of Yoga. It’s also one of the 4 legs of the Bull of Dharma, right action.

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. 🙂

Last Updated on January 12, 2020 by Davidya

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  1. Great article David; tapas sounds rajasic in nature. I think the idea of ‘sacrifice’ including self-sacrifice goes way back in religion (and spirituality) because when pressed by the wrath of nature, personal trauma and such, people felt the need to appease an anthropomorphic and rather difficult God and just didn’t know what else to do. That “suffering is good for the soul” is still an accepted idea, and who knows perhaps that’s karma for some, but I much prefer the middle path. Keep up the good work, your blog is the first one I’ve really enjoyed reading:)

    1. Hi Andrew
      Yes, you can equate tapas with rajas although like Vishnu, it’s about balance.
      Yes, and again an expression of a darker age when people felt more disconnected from God and perhaps victimized by life.
      Action is good for the soul. Suffering is optional. 🙂

      1. Jim

        Hi David
        Thank you for this one
        “Suffering is optional” – Is it? 🙂
        Given that material life, our life, is lovingly sustained by Tamas, any identity used as a result must be let go of. Just like a funeral, there is sadness and loss associated with this, again and again, continuously shedding our skins and reintegrating into life.
        Of course the loss is always resolved and life goes on until the next time. However it can be quite an effort to keep going, to challenge and dissolve even those identifications which we hold most dear.
        Is this suffering? Not in the way that it destroys our faith and direction, though spiritual life is necessarily and ultimately a journey through all of Creation, both the Heavens and the Hells. Totality, fullness, integration.

        1. Hi Jim
          Someone who is caught in suffering may not even recognize they’re suffering. They may consider it normal.
          But once you how how to escape suffering, once we’re conscious enough, it becomes optional. If it arises, we know how to redirect the attention.
          This doesn’t mean there won’t be any pain or difficult emotions. But we don’t need to suffer for them. In fact, grief can be very rich when fully experienced.
          I touch on the difference between pain and suffering here:

          And yes, the spiritual journey can be a hero’s journey. But we don’t have to suffer for it.

  2. Jeff

    From my perspective, at first activity integrates silences. Maharishi’s analogy of dying and drying the the cloth illiterates this principal.

    But once a person throughly integrates silence, activity enlivens silence. This process closes the gap between the silence and activity that was created by the results of the meditation. At first by listening to Vedic recitation and Gandharva Veda. But after a while, silence is enlivened through any activity. For me, simple exercise generates bliss in the body and this allows me to simultaneously connect physical material with consciousness. But more importantly, the silence moving within itself purify’s the environment. Like I am meditating in action.

    Also for me, any form of activity generates the experience of dynamism and silence. Even the motion of my moving car generates this experience. It feels like I am flying through the air which generates a lot of bliss. More and more, the experience of dynamism and silence is being stablized 24/7.

    1. Hi Jeff
      Well seen and described.
      But it goes deeper than that too. As the process deepens after Self Realization/ CC, even attention itself enlivens silence. It becomes about moving silence or flow.
      After the Unity shift is integrated, silence and activity merge and become one thing. And then it feels like you’re moving through yourself. 🙂

    2. Reggie

      This experience has become my new norm daily, I even notice when I have to raise my voice to my students there’s this subtle expansion and bliss even though the emotion is intense at times. I even notice sensations around the third eye when I am around certain people who have very refined energy. It’s all an ongoing process, just going along for the ride.

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