The moral compass

Ethics are our moral compass for the journey. These are absolutely essential to find your way to the higher portals of consciousness. If the key is bent, the lock will not open.

Character formation marks the start of every spiritual path. It’s required as part of the metamorphosis. The start of every spiritual path will eventually include an inevitable clean up of one’s ethics, values, and beliefs. As I continued to grow on the path, I eventually found myself initiating the change before it gets thrown at me. Because change is a must when I couldn’t bear to be at ‘odds’. The voice within you actually grows stronger as you make every effort to align it with the higher consciousness. Very soon, it begins to feel as if every shortcoming in my character that can lead to disharmony with others will become as unbearable as a hair in the eye. It has to go.

That said, I have been very fortunate on my journey. I was given an early start in the ethics, first at a convent school then yoga and vedanta and finally Zen Buddhism. I discovered religion and philosophy very early on in my late teens and my reading diet usually consisted of the likes of Joel Goldsmith and Paul Bunyan. It wasn’t until I stumbled across a book by Richard Hittleman that I started practising yoga. Since then yoga and Zen Buddhism has become like the map and compass for me as I continue on this road I call the path to my awakening. But be forewarned, cleaning up one’s ethical life can be a very painful process of letting go.

From a posh yoga studio in Singapore, I eventually made my way to several yoga ashrams in India and finally to the Dayananda Ashram in Rishikesh. It was at my yoga teacher training at Prashanti Kutiram, Bangalore, that I was properly indoctrinated into the 8-fold or Astanga Path of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. It is really quite akin to the Noble Eight-fold Path of Buddhism where ethics form the foundation for a Buddhist on the path of enlightenment. I taught yoga at home to small groups of students for a while until I stopped due to work.

And then along the way, as I sat at the feet of swamijis of the Sariswati Order, I learned again how many of the fundamental concepts of unhappiness and happiness arising from vice and virtue are also found in the Vedanta teachings. Dukkha, sukkha, punya (Sanskrit: पुण्य ; Pali: puñña) and papa (Sanskrit: पाप). All these shape our karma. We are indeed the creators of our own life story. There’s no one to blame if we ‘suffer’ and like the Buddha taught, the solution also lies in us. The way out is in and it starts with an ethical clean-up.

Similarly for the Ashtanga Path, ethics form a vital part of the spiritual journey that yoga aims towards as an end goal i.e. self-realisation. If we are to know who we are and why we are and as more and more of what we are in reality is revealed, what do we do with what is given to us to see? Well, in my experience, we will do the right thing that is, clean up good. If we don’t and insist we are right, and cling obstinately to our self-centredness, then all we will get is more grief, mental angst, and our problems with people and situations don’t get solved. We won’t find our Happy unless we are willing to transform.

No, not because the other person is right or that you should be a door mat. Not at all. You will want to change because, believe me, you will become the first to admit that there is really something in you that isn’t quite right for you anymore and it has to go. Be it a thinking or behavioural pattern, it’s most likely that the point is reached where you have to let it go and replace it with something more harmonious to the whole. It’s like you really want to be the change that you want to see in the world. I believe that if you are intent on helping to create a world of wisdom, compassion, love, kindness, patience, and respect then you’ll want to be the first to give way, say it’s okay, it’s no skin off your back. And you are actually happy doing it.

And oftentimes, I also get a wakeup call in the early hours of the morning, more often around 4 a.m. when I will surface from sleep with this very solid ‘Voice’ in my head that says stuff like, “Don’t laugh at others. Respect everything and everyone.” These aren’t just words that form in my head. They are read out to me in a very real and non-negotiable sort of manner. Another one went like this, “Peace is your birthright. You were born peaceful.” And everything the Voice says has a ring of truth. I mean, look at a newborn babe and the utterly blank canvas it represents at the time. So pure, so full of peace before it starts its karmic journey and life story. Before it begins to be formed and shaped by significant others as well as the choices and decisions it will make in time.

So, what sort of ethics are we talking about? In the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path (Pali: Atthangika-magga; Sanskrit: Astangika-marga), which is the fourth truth in the Four Noble Truths, a path the Buddha realised will help to resolve suffering or mental distress, ethical change starts with cultivating correct thinking, speech and action. Is this because we need to be goody two-shoes in order to be spiritual? No. It’s really the other way around. It’s because the spiritual will change you from inside out once your Central Processing Unit is being overwritten with a code called wisdom and compassion. From henceforth, this code will unravel and take over to clean you up. That’s why. It’s inevitable and it will happen. You can fight it but it will still happen.

In the yoga sutras, the Ashtanga Path (Sanskrit: अष्टाङ्ग aṣṭ āṅga, ” eight limbs”) outlines what one should abstain from and those virtues that one should cultivate with the aim of creating the right conditions for a right and proper yoga sadhana or spiritual practise based on the principles of yoga. This path begins with the niyamas and yamas and these are to help to still the churnings of the mind where a lot of the problems start. Training the mind figures a lot on this path. It sets a foundation that’s conducive to meditation and rightly so. Even in the Buddha’s Path, training the mind is foremost because everything begins and ends in the mind. The way we think and perceive and therefore the way we speak and act is a consequence of cause and effect that leads to happiness or not.

How well you get to know what’s going on on your path of awakening is all revealed to you as you make the effort to meditate, reflect, and listen. That’s why to the yogi or yogini, the yoga sadhana is really the road and ethics the compass. The body and mind become the vehicles for transformation, to travel ever inward and then out again to be a positive contribution to the world at large. This is the sum and total of it all. Why bother to get involved on the path of awakening if we don’t intend to be a force for good, a catalyst for positive change in our lives as well as maybe sparking something good to happen in others as well?

Imagine an awakened world with no wars, no oppression between gender or race, creed or philosophy? Wouldn’t that be something if we had at least tried our best to play even a small part in that change? I think it’d be worth every second of that immense transformation we have to go through first. The pain of change, of giving up the egoistic identifications, the miseries that we unwittingly inflict on others due to our unwise and ignorant actions, I think that part at least would have been worth giving up. Jesus preached all is love; the Buddha wisdom and compassion. This is the same end goal of all ethical change. That we eventually transform into glorious beings capable of unconditional love, wisdom and compassion.