Balancing Matter and Spirit

During my life I have passed through different stages of spiritual understanding. In my earliest days when I first attended the Hare Krishna temple in Toronto, I arrived with the idea of a dichotomy between spiritual and material life. Temple theology validated this idea and even went further by laying down specific rules about what was spiritual and that was material. To be spiritual meant to be in relation to Krishna and to be material meant to be not in relation to Krishna. In fact I came to the temple with a dichotomous view because this is what I had learned from my Christian upbringing and in the popular religious culture of the times. Although the cultural “look” of Krishna Consciousness was different from mainline Christianity in Canada, it actually added very little to my spiritual understanding except that Krishna Consciousness was “hot” compared to mainline Christianity. Krishna Consciousness demanded enactment of the dichotomous view of life whereas the mainline religions did not demand its adherents follow its theology. In other words, Krishna Consciousness was a lifestyle where its members were required to stress the spiritual side of life and minimize the material side of life. As a result the world was maya, an illusion, and only God in the form of Krishna was real. Going to school to acquire earthly knowledge was maya, holding a job or position in the world was maya, appreciating a beautiful sunset or smelling a rose were maya. Also implied within the dichotomous view of life are the dualistic ideas that spirit is good, matter is bad, up is good, down is bad, spirit is light, matter is darkness, and that you cannot be both spiritual and materialistic at the same time. The dichotomous view cannot perceive shades of grey. Life can only be viewed as “either or.” This, I fear, is what is occurring in American politics today now that the Republican party has been taken over by evangelical Christianity.

Later we learned a new concept that extended our range of activities by showing us how to engage in the world according to a concept called “yukta-vairaga.” This meant that in relation to Krishna, education could be cultivated, that in relation to Krishna, worldly position could be assumed. The beauty of the sunset or the scent of the rose could be seen as the smiling face of Krishna or the fragrance of God. We were still never permitted see the beauty of the world independently of Krishna, but at least yukta-vairaga removed some restrictions. However, common pleasures such as television, movies and other forms of entertainment were off limits, most foods, music and books were shunned and friends who were not devotees were not permitted. Even sex was still only for procreation. It was a strict and dedicated lifestyle indeed.

In this way I grew up seeing spirit and matter as opposites, and because my basic orientation was naturally towards the spiritual I tended to devalue the material side of life. This led to an imbalanced view of life. I consider my early and middle years lived in Krishna Consciousness to be imbalanced. I did, of course, receive a great spiritual training that has stood me well in terms of my career, but in recent years my dichotomous view of life has given way to a unified view with a resultant shift in outlook. I no longer view the spiritual side of life as separate from the material side. I view life as a whole.

However, for the purpose of explanation I divide life into four major quadrants representing various human needs, physical, mental, social/emotional and spiritual needs. Our physical needs include all activities in direct relation to bodily maintenance, cleaning, grooming, exercising, feeding, etc. Mental needs includes all kinds of educational and mental related disciplines, study, schooling, involvement of the arts, and so on. Social and emotional needs include friendships, membership in clubs and other social organization, relations with spouses, and so on. Spiritual needs are in relation to the religious side of life and may include prayer, meditation, rituals, sacraments, and so forth. All four of these areas of life are interrelated and at various stages of life one area of life may be stressed over the others, but in all cases they can not be neglected without creating an imbalance.

In my early life due to an immature understanding I over emphasized the spiritual side of life and neglected the other areas of my life. I have learned that it is not possible to be truly spiritual without the involvement of these other areas of life. Spirituality can not be separated from the material, intellectual or even the emotional and social sides of life! This is a realization that seems so obvious to me now, but it has taken me decades to come to this understanding. It has taken years to overcome the fear and guilt that had locked me into the dichotomous view of matter and spirit. Years ago we, of course, would say that unless the body was fed, or unless the mind was trained and so on one could not chant or think of Krishna. It was not that we were unaware of these needs, but in those days the spiritual and other needs of life were always in a dichotomous relationship. Material needs were only a necessary evil that were always to be minimized. Today these needs are seen as inseparable and fully integrated with my spirituality. My career as a priest is as much a physical, mental and social affair as it is a spiritual affair. My travels to Europe are as much a spiritual affair as they are tending to my intellectual, social and emotion needs. I no longer make a value distinction between the different areas of my life. It has taken me years, but I now consider myself to be a balanced personality.

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