The Company You Keep
In order to tackle the Herculean task of spiritual growth, you need the counsel of the wise.
By Sandra Anderson
What made the London Summer Olympics the most watched event in US television history? Very few of us are wrestlers or archers or even weekend warriors; we know next to nothing about dressage; and few of us will ever throw a javelin—not even in jest. Yet we profoundly enjoy watching such skill in action. Even if we have no intention of mastering a back flip off the balance beam, for one moment we are that perfectly focused body and mind, full of confidence and courage. A bit of the magic rubs off on us.
In yoga, making use of this effect of association and our capacity for empathy is known as satsanga. The word literally means “a union or meeting (sanga) with truth (sat).” Sat also carries the connotation of “being, existence, reality, and higher truth or wisdom.” So satsanga is usually translated as the “company of the wise.” Through satsanga we bask in the presence of those established in truth and wisdom, and experience that potential in ourselves.
The famous sage Parashurama set out on the path to enlightenment after a chance satsanga with the sage Samvarta. From there, he made his way to Dattatreya, who taught him the secrets of sadhana—spiritual practice. “Listen, Parashurama,” says Dattatreya in the prominent tantric text Tripura Rahasya, “satsanga, the company of the wise, is the way to attain the absolute good. It dispels the darkness of ignorance. The company of the wise yields the most desirable fruit.”
Light the Torch
That most desirable fruit is vichara—right thinking or discrimination—the kind of understanding that gives shape to the highest meaning and purpose in life. “Those who are devoid of discrimination are narrow in their thinking, like frogs in a well,” says Dattatreya. “A frog born in a well lives without knowing the difference between day and night.” Satsanga allows us to see beyond the darkness of our fear, frustrations, hopelessness, and everyday small-minded concerns.
In traditional satsanga, being in the company of the wise means sitting at the feet of a sage or a spiritually accomplished teacher who can unveil our ignorance and misunderstanding, reveal the causes of conflict and suffering, and suggest ways to remove them. This traditional format of discussion and dialogue plays an important role in addressing our deepest concerns. But satsanga can also convey the experience of embodied wisdom in other more indirect ways. Just as watching the Olympic champions lifts our spirits, merely being in the presence of wisdom and self-mastery can be enough to invoke a new state of awareness—a state of unconditional happiness, infused with fearlessness and contentment.
Lift Yourself Up
The Tripura Rahasya also describes how satsanga acts as the antidote for aparadha vasana—that which pulls us away from our own inherent joy and harms the seat of that joy in every aspect of our being. To some degree, at one time or another, we have all been plagued by a nagging sense of inadequacy, crippled by fear or anger, or knocked down by hopelessness. These are aparadha vasanas—inclinations of mind (vasana) that take away (apa) our intrinsic happiness (radha). Self-condemnation, not trusting yourself, ignoring the voice of your heart, a distorted perception of yourself—all qualify.
The cure for aparadha vasana? Satsanga. In the company of someone established in the inherently joyful inner Self, whose happiness is not dependent on achievement or gain, we experience deep inner peace and happiness. This nurtures the creation of a new vasana in us—one that allows for a balanced mind, positive thinking, and discrimination.
Finding Good Company
Of course, the truly wise are not that easy to find. Fortunately, the grace of satsanga can come in many forms: listening to an inspired lecture on your CD player on the way to work; spending a few minutes every morning with the Bhagavad Gita; joining a spiritually minded book club; visiting a place of worship; or experiencing moments of clarity and grace with a few people gathered with a higher intention. This could even include the pleasure of sharing Saturday morning bagels after class with fellow yoga students. Conversations such as these can reflect an unspoken understanding that we share something we may not have in common with our friends, our colleagues at work, or in many cases, our own families.
This silent acknowledgment and quiet nurturing of the tiny tender flame in the cave of the heart is a precious gift—at least as important as practice itself. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them,” Jesus promised. (Matthew 18:20). “Gathered in my name” calls on the presence of wisdom itself and implies an intention to share an inner state of spiritual awareness—a state that is to be invoked, cultivated, and remembered.
Satsanga draws us into the arena of spiritual training, where we can establish a relationship with the embodied stream of knowledge, or a teacher or teachers, who can guide us to deepen our spiritual practice. In the Tripura Rahasya, Parashurama describes his life-changing encounter with the sage Samvarta: “His company gave me immense relief and a sense of abiding peace, just as a mist refreshes a man overheated by the midday sun.” The company of the wise sustains and encourages us, until finally, with the awakening of our own inner Self, we become the silent sage who quietly radiates inner joy, wisdom, and inspiration.
The Virtues of Satsanga
Satsanga enlarges one’s intelligence and destroys one’s ignorance and one’s psychological distress. Whatever be the cost, however difficult it may be, whatever obstacles may stand in its way, satsanga should never be neglected. For satsanga alone is one’s light on the path of life.
—The Yoga Vasishtha
Senior editor Sandra Anderson is coauthor of Yoga: Mastering the Basics and has taught yoga and meditation for over 25 years.