Satsang and Freedom
This holiday season we are invited to spend time with those we love and care about. Sure, there is much shopping to be done, and gift giving and receiving to do. But we are supposed to set aside petty differences and our selfish wants and carve out time to give to others. It is a time for fellowship and good cheer. And as the New Year approaches, we are also called to reflect on our achievements and our failures, to make renewed commitments to living the life we wish to live.
It’s no coincidence that our holy teachers Sharon Gannon and David Life have chosen this month to teach us about the value of satsang. Sharon says that satsang is the most important practice of yoga today, the one that will lift us out of our own small miseries, as well as uplift other human and animal beings. Satsang is the soil within which we will blossom into our True Nature.
So what is satsang?
Sat means truth.
Anga is a limb, or an attachment. (Ashtanga, the 8-limbed path)
The word satsang literally means to be attached to the truth.
Quite simply, it is good and virtuous company. It isn’t just any sort of company, and it isn’t merely spending time with people we happen to like or who make us feel good. It’s much more than that and, in fact, that sort of company might actually be the opposite of satsang, or could be. Satsang is intentional time spent with others who are like-minded, who are on the path, and who not only want to live in a better world but who are actually willing to do the hard work to bring that world about. Yogis, like many believers, desire to be in good company, almost more than anything else, because we desire to draw nearer to God. Satsang is when we come together with others who share the belief that this drawing near, which some call enlightenment, is possible in this life. What wonderful news for us! We can be close to God right now, we don’t have to wait for some other (after)life. And what’s more is that one way that we bring the Divine nearer to us is by bringing those who also desire and believe nearer to us! Who participates in Satsang? Those who wish to be uplifted and who seek, with their actions, words, and thoughts, to uplift others.
Often, satsang means something like fellowship with others who also seek the Truth. And talk of God or the Capital-T Truth makes many folks–even devotional and evolved yogis–uncomfortable. The idea of worshipping, at least in a traditional way, is off-putting to many, and perhaps for good reason. But consider, really consider, the words of the late David Foster Wallace on belief:
“[H]ere’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”
So how can we keep the truth up front? Traditionally, we “attached ourselves to the truth” by keeping the company of those who were enlightened, spending time with a wise and holy teacher, a guru, or maybe even a saint if you were lucky. You might have made a pilgrimage to a place where a holy saint lived or taught. What a beautiful and mysterious way of life, dedicating your own efforts to the life’s work of another. Although that particular form of life is lost to most of us now living in late-modernity in the West, many of us probably have some idea of what this could have felt like. We know the blessings that come from time spent with a person we consider to be truly wise and good, how uplifted we feel when we are in the presence of a truly inspired teacher.
But today satsang takes many forms. It can take the form of community organizing, political activism, church, collective yoga practices, kirtan, vegan potlucks, book clubs, and many more.
Why is this so important to the yogi? Because we desire to be good, but we know we live in a world where we are, at every turn, urged to think mostly of ourselves and to trample on others to get what it is we think we want. More money, a bigger house, better clothes, more yoga classes, a fancier car, etc, etc. We think we are free, because we have acquired material things that make our lives more comfortable. But there is so much unfreedom in this way of life. Always trying to get more, even though what we have is enough. And when we attach ourselves to the truth, we loosen the grip that our attachments to everything else has on us. The highest truth is that there are no others, of course; that we are all connected, all a part of a larger whole. Until we truly have that realization it’s good to be around others interested in seeking the Truth. We keep our company elevated and we stay elevated.
This is not always easy. But if we want to free ourselves into the gift of our own humanity, then we must work hard every day at it. Once more, Foster Wallace’s words are instructive, for he reminds us of the challenges, as well as what is at stake:
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.