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Dance and the Spiritual Path

Five ways in which the attitudes involved in studying dance and the attitudes involved in striving to make progress on the Hindu spiritual path are indeed the same.

Unedited Transcript:

Good morning, everyone! Welcome to our guests.

We are working on a series of 12 talks to be used in Mauritius. We have a once-a-month ceremony there, a homa with public invited and there are about three-four hundred people for the event. So, it is a nice group and we have an opportunity to have a page in a local publication called 'Vanakkam', which is a Hindu monthly newspaper. The editor, Dr. Pillai, has offered us one page a month. So, it is an opportunity to reach out and distribute 5000 copies. So, a nice opportunity there to reach out and so we are developing these talks so they could be useful in the Homa and in the publication 'Vanakkam'. So, each talk has a practical aspect that you can take home and do, a very important part of Gurudeva's teachings is to bring down to the level of improving our behavior, eliminating things we really should not be doing, and doing more of the things we should. Improving our behavior.

This is a topic you have heard before. It is based on dance. 'Dance and the Spiritual Path'.

My Guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, had the gift of bringing down to Earth in a very practical way the guidelines for becoming a more spiritual person. It is easy to talk high philosophy in Hinduism: "Man is God. We are divine," and so forth. It is easy to say profound things such as, "You are a being that has unlimited power within you." But, to bring spiritual teachings down to the level where we really are a more spiritual person this year than we were a year ago--that is the challenge, and what we will explore in this talk.

The ability to do exactly that is part of Gurudeva's genius. He gives us these very pragmatic guidelines along with the high philosophy and in the process keeps us feeling good about ourselves. We don't take the approach that we have all these weaknesses and therefore man is weak and sinful. That is not the point. Man is a divine being. Meaning, man is the soul or spiritual being. However, we also have these other qualities that come along with being a person. We have instincts. We have an intellect. We have an ego, and we need to get them all under control so that our soul, our spiritual nature, dominates over all. As Gurudeva says, "Peace is control, and control is freedom."

This article, "Dance and the Spiritual Path," is based on a talk I gave in California at a dance performance or Arangetram, a first public dance performance, given in August, 2003. It gives five ways in which the attitudes involved in studying dance and the attitudes involved in striving to make progress on the Hindu spiritual path are indeed the same. It takes a very practical approach to the subject. Some of you listening, of course not present, may not know Gurudeva himself was an accomplished dancer. On special occasions, he would dance in the Indian classical Manipuri style. When he spoke about dancing, he would regularly make the comment, "When learning dance, you are expecting the dance guru to point out your weakest areas, not simply to compliment you on what you are already doing well." In fact, he would say, "You pay. You pay your teacher to criticize you, to point out your weakest areas." As our satguru, he was doing the same in our spiritual life.

Gurudeva's comment leads nicely into our first comparison of the spiritual path to the study of dance, which is the attitude toward strengths and weaknesses. Does a young woman become a better dancer by focusing on the movements she does well? Of course, she does not. She has to focus on the movements that she does not do well and strive to improve them. Said another way, she becomes a better dancer not by focusing on her strengths but rather by focusing on her weaknesses.

Looking at the spiritual path, let's take the example of someone who is happy to help coordinate activities at a nearby Hindu center. However, when she attends puja she doesn't really feel much devotion for the Deity. Her strength is service, and her weakness is devotion. Therefore, to further advance she needs to focus less on service and more on activities that will help her deepen devotion, such as learning and singing bhajans, growing flowers in the home garden for the temple and sewing clothes for the Deity.

A second comparison between dance and the spiritual path is the attitude toward improvement. A good dancer has the attitude that she can always perform a dance better than she has ever done it before. She feels there is always room for improvement and that her movements can always be even further refined. Looking at the spiritual path, let's take as our example the principle of ahimsa, nonviolence in thought, word and deed. It is indeed a central principle of Hinduism. Of course, most of us do not indulge in physical violence. Therefore, we may conclude that ahimsa presents no challenge to us.

However, looking more closely at the definition of ahimsa, we see that it is not harming others by thought, word or deed. This points out that even though we are not harming others with our actions, we can take the attitude of striving to improve our behavior even more by carefully watching our speech and avoiding harming others through our words. The common forms of verbal violence are joking, teasing, gossiping and backbiting. Every reduction we make in harming others less through our words produces spiritual progress.

A third comparison of the spiritual path to the study of dance is our attitude toward mistakes. Many dancers when they first start are very self-conscious about their mistakes. They make a mistake and get flustered and can't concentrate on the rest of the dance class. A good teacher will encourage them and point out that mistakes are natural. All dance students make them. Because of the teacher's encouragement, we soon overcome being self conscious of our mistakes and take on a more positive attitude, which is if we make a mistake in a dance, next time we will try our best to do the movement better.

For all of mankind, no matter where one is on the path, spiritual advancement comes from learning from one's mistakes in life. Unfortunately, this process is often inhibited by the idea that somehow we are not supposed to make mistakes. A common first reaction to making a mistake is to become upset that we made the mistake, get emotional about it, or, if it is a serious mistake, to become quite burdened and even depressed. We need, however, to be like the dancer and simply resolve to do better next time. Thus a good second reaction to a mistake is to think clearly about what happened, why the mistake occurred and to find a way not to repeat the mistake in the future. Perhaps we were not being careful enough, and resolving to be more careful next time will prevent the problem from recurring. Perhaps we did not know something, and now we have that knowledge and can simply resolve to use that knowledge next time and thus avoid making the same mistake again.

A fourth comparison is that dance, like spiritual practice, involves the disciplined control of willpower, awareness and life forces. In dance, willpower is used to move the body through the challenging positions in time with the music and gracefully. Our awareness needs to constantly focus on the meaning of the song and how that meaning is being expressed in our facial, hand and body gestures. Life force must constantly move through the body in a controlled manner. In fact, Gurudeva, in teaching basic Manipuri dance movements, would stress that first you move the life force, the prana, and only then you move the arm or leg.

For the spiritual side of disciplined control, let's look at the practice of meditation. Willpower manifests in our ability to sit in meditation posture without moving. Awareness needs to constantly focus our thoughts on the object of our meditation without letting our thoughts wander off into other areas. And life force is controlled through the process of pranayama, regulating our breath, and withdrawing our energies from our external senses into our spiritual center.

A fifth and final comparison between dance and the spiritual path is that they are both nonintellectual. You do not become a good dancer through reading a book. Though some reading is involved, the main focus is on the actual practice of dancing. Our physical body is significantly changed and gains new abilities through the many years of dance practice. Similarly, reading spiritual books is certainly part of making progress on the spiritual path. However, much more important is the regular practice of spiritual disciplines. Our emotional, intellectual and spiritual natures are all significantly changed through performing spiritual disciplines for a period of many years. Gurudeva's satguru, Siva Yogaswami of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, stressed this point by telling certain devotees, who liked to read too many spiritual books, "It's not in books, you fool."

Hinduism's spiritual practices can be divided into four categories: good conduct, service, devotion and meditation. So, this is what we can practice, drawing from these four categories. Good conduct is the foundation for all other practices in Hinduism. It begins with overcoming basic instinctive patterns, such as the tendencies to become angry and hurtful. A helpful list of these tendencies is contained in the ten classical restraints, called yamas. Observing the yamas naturally leads into a second set of practices which are called niyamas, which are of the nature of religious observances. Good conduct also includes performing one's duty to family and community, honoring holy men, respecting elders and atoning for misdeeds.

The second category of spiritual practices is service, which is also called karma yoga or seva, and refers to religious service given without the least thought of reward, which has the magical effect of softening the ego and bringing forth the soul's innate devotion. The third category is devotion, which is also called bhakti yoga, and centers around regularly worshiping the Deity at the temple and inwardly striving to awaken a profound love of God in our hearts, soften our intellect and develop a deep sense of humility.

The fourth is meditation, which is also called raja yoga or ashtanga yoga, as it consists of eight limbs. Meditation begins with asana--sitting quietly in yogic posture-- and pranayama, breath control. Pratyahara, sense withdrawal, brings awareness into dharana, concentration, then into dhyana, meditation. Finally, dhyana leads to samadhi, God Realization.

In summary, we have looked at five ways in which the attitudes of mastering dance and making significant progress on the spiritual path are indeed, identical. The first area is focusing on our weaknesses and improving them. This is an important area everyone can benefit from working on. This is what you are supposed to take home and do. We suggest you look for one area in your spiritual life in which you feel you need to do better. For example, on some days you pray in the home shrine before leaving the home and on other days you skip it. Resolve to become regular in this practice. Resolve to pray every single day in the home shrine. Once you are regular, you have strengthened a weak area and as a result made tangible spiritual progress.

Photo of  Gurudeva
It is wise to have a free mind, a clear, serene and relaxed attitude toward life before partaking of food. That is why people on the inner path traditionally meditate for a moment, chant a mantra or say a prayer before a meal.