A couple of weeks ago I was having a discussion with a student on the meaning of brahmacharya – or the yogic ethical precept usually translated as continence or celibacy. It is also often discussed as moderation or a way for us to manage our energy; a way for us to decide what we should do when, how we should spend the energy that we have whether it be in a day or a lifetime, and how to align ourselves with a greater good – for our own well-being and mental health but also for the well-being and mental health of others and indeed the planet itself.
I have always loved the yamas and niyamas – the collective name of those ten ethical precepts – as they allow me to mull things over in a new and often more objective way rather than asking me to simply rely on my own preferences, my own changing mind or the will of others. Instead, I can use the lens of these tenets as laid out over 3000 years ago on the other side of the world to assess my options and to make my own choices based on a solid foundation of discernment.
I can’t recall the exact context in which we were discussing brahmacharya, but I believe it may have been related to some difficult choices my student was making about managing her work and her children, living in poverty and without family or governmental support. She was feeling stressed about some of the choices she had to make to simply keep the lights on in her home which sometimes were at odds with what she felt was her best parenting. At some point she said, “Well I just have to think of brahmacharya, I only have so much energy and I can only do so much.”
Her feelings of going it alone and her invoking of the idea of brahmacharya as moderation reminded me of a very different interpretation of brahmacharya I heard many years ago from the yoga teacher and clinical psychologist Richard Miller. I remember studying with Richard back in 2002 and him defining brahmacharya as “walking with God” and explaining that when we truly walk with God, we can genuinely evaluate our actions and words by asking ourselves, “Does this feel right, does this feel ok, between me and God?” And if we have enough self-awareness and enough discernment, this question alone can guide our personal and moral compass.
Now of course I realize that anyone could twist anything to make themselves believe “this is God’s will, that God is not only ok with this, but actually sanctions it.” We only need to look cursorily at all of the suffering, violence and oppression that has been perpetrated in the name of God to know that this fundamentalist and evangelical view often actually serves as a weapon of exclusion and feigned moralistic hierarchy while allowing the individual to excuse or even celebrate their own turpitude.
This is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about an ability to go deeply inward, to sit with the mystery of divine love, divine order and from that place of equipoise to allow a new vision to emerge – one that guides us through the most trying of times. I believe this is what is being described when brahmacharya is defined though its etymological components: “Brahma” meaning Divinity, and charya meaning something like the way, the path or, in a different context, one who is established in’ or to follow. So in this version of brahmacharya, one is called to be in alignment with divinity itself.
This way of thinking about the precept of brahmacharya is exciting to me, especially as I dive deeper into the teachings and comparative practices of Christian mysticism I am learning through the Living School.
One of the things that I have been most inspired by in my studies is the idea of the Christ – not just Jesus – but the mystery of the Christ as an incarnation of divine love itself. While this is at the center of Christianity – this idea of a human form with whom we can enter into real relationship in order to know God, to know divine Love, it also occurs to me that many of my peers in the Living School have not actually felt that relationship, have not entered into that personal communion with Jesus that allows them to feel secure, to feel loved, to feel guided by the presence of God.
To be sure, neither have many of my “yoga friends.” The ideas, the intellectualization of the yamas and niyamas along with much of the related philosophy, has effectively found its way to being a replacement for the experience of God realization or God presence itself. For me, it’s why the bhakti – or devotional- path has always appealed. In singing and praying and decorating my altars and scattering flower petals, I have found a way that gives me that personal sense of God in relationship.
When I think about the idea of “walking with God” or relying on a relationship with God to guide my choices and to offer me solace, I think I had better know who it is that I am walking with, or to do my part to keep up that relationship that I want to rely on. I think of it like a friendship – if I had a good friend on whom I always leaned or called in times of fear, confusion or loneliness, it would be a good idea for me to keep up that relationship, to pick up the phone and call, to send a card on their birthday, to share my life with them.
I think “walking with God” is a good translation of brahmacharya, but if we want to truly fall back on it in order to guide us, we must have a sense of who that God is to us and how we are in relationship to her. Whether one is Christian, Hindu, Pagan or any other religious identification, we can all learn from entering more deeply and personally into true kinship –
the Kingdom of God.becomes the Kindom of God.
I think this is why so many of my yoga friends are now discovering Richard Rohr and his teachings. They are maturing beyond the superficial version of yoga they may have first been introduced to – the poses, the watered down philosophies- they have seen more of life, which means they have seen more suffering, and are looking toward someone who is not afraid to talk about a living Christ – a living sense of the divine – and yet they also already have a familiarity with, and an invitation into, this personal relationship through their exposure to yoga and its related philosophies.
So friends and fellow seekers of all backgrounds and experiences, consider today what that relationship is, how it serves you, and how you actively participate in it. Dust off your altar! Bring fresh flowers! Sit in silence, sit in diffuse awareness and call on your friend. He is there, she is there, in its myriad names and forms, divine presence is always there and always happy to walk with you. In the famous words of James Taylor:
You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am
I’ll come running, oh yes I will, see you again
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, yeah
All you got to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah
Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend?
With love and light – we are all in this together.