I just came back from spending a few of days at a Kundalini yoga “ashram” (a yogic community-living arrangement). In the middle of one of the most densely populated cities in the world, amidst the chaos of a subway station and endless rumbling of metropolitan life, stands one most fascinating places I have been to. The magic of this place I think is that its inhabitants possess a collection of secrets; a dainty collection of immensely valuable principles and practices adorned in ancient religious rhetoric. I did not realize this at the beginning. In full disclosure, my first day at the ashram was not focused on analyzing the wisdom of their philosophy, but rather on the whimsical eccentricities of their environment. Among other things, I was amazed and somewhat envious –alright, very envious– of the men’s ample facial hair , the vibrant colors of their furnishings, and the unique cultural fusion of their names( e.g. my host “Sat Tara Singh Sanchez Gomez”) and their food (e.g. vegetarian tamales accompanied by tea made from traditionally Indian Ayurvedic spices). However, when I began really listening and reading what they had to say, I noticed an uncanny overlap of their teachings and actions (mostly founded on Sikh philosophy) to Abraham Maslow’s characteristics of self-actualized people. From what I gathered,the yogis at the ashram, much like myself, are on a life-long learning journey to become better versions of themselves. The practices and principles on which they operate (and that have been around for millenia) act as a mental model or framework towards becoming self-actualized individuals.
Self-Actualization vs Mukti
A central backbone of Sikh philosophy takes the form of a list of five principles or virtues. These virtues provide a guide with which to achieve Mukti, a mystical union to their concept of the Divine. I observed that these five virtues and the steps to achieve them perfectly encompassed Abraham Maslow’s characteristics of self actualized people.
Sikhs place special emphasis on recognizing and living in line with the true nature of reality. They do not proclaim to have the only divine truth, but recognize that their “path to divinity” is but one of many ways to achieve Mukti. Therefore, Sikhs are open to other faiths, philosophies and ways of thinking (religious and non-religious), and independently judge these ideas in order to discern what is beneficial or not in their own lives. I am non-religious and was completely surprised at the acceptance and genuine curiosity that these people demonstrated, even as I voiced some premature skepticism towards their ideas. They explained that they believed truth to be a practice which welcomes analysis and starts with the premise that everyone is equal. They are constantly testing their beliefs by comparing them with their own subjective experience.
This concept of truth clearly overlaps with three of Maslow’s characteristics, 1. Efficient Perceptions of Reality, 1. Spontaneity and Naturalness 2. Reliance on Own Experience. In other words, their process of meaningful, systematic and inclusive questioning is compatible with humanistic psychology.
When I stayed at the ashram, there were about nine guests, at least two of whom (including me) were not yogis or Sikhs but random travelers who were offered a place to sleep. We were not only offered lodging and hot water, but were overwhelmed with offers of delicious food, traveling advice, German classes, yoga classes, and pleasant conversation. Everyone at the ashram treated us like family. They would get out of their way to see that we were happy, that we were fed, and that we were warm. They explained that they believed in the sacredness of hospitality; that all human beings are part of one community and that cherishing compassion towards each other keeps the heart content. They are exercising what Maslow referred to as “Social Compassion” and “Task-Centered Altruism” in a way that gives them meaning and fulfillment.
I had some of of the most pleasant conversations of my life while at the ashram. Everyone had a fascinating story to tell and seemed genuinely interested in hearing everything I had to say (Maslow’s “Continued Freshness of Appreciation”). It was obvious that most everyone had a strong appreciation of community. Yet, a substantial part of their day was spent in solitude. Most of them would find a time to practice their chants and meditations or just take a moment to sit by themselves and savoir vivre. They were some of the few people I have ever met who deliberately practice autonomy and who seek to achieve comfort with solitude (two key characteristics of self-actualized people).
Nimrata (Humility) and Pyare (Love)
The permanent residents at the ashram were a perfect representation of social diversity. The group’s members included students, farmers, a biologist, a lawyer, and a cook. Yet despite the disparity in social status, material wealth and education level, there was no underlying hierarchical structure at the ashram. Everyone’s opinions and ideas were equally valuable and the loving connection they had with one another was palpable. This was perhaps a result of their love of humanity and their recognition that despite their different circumstances, they were on a similar path.
The goal of my learning project is to find the models and skills necessary to help me develop intellectually, emotionally and socially. My experience at the ashram enriched my perspective on the essence of emotional development. By being open to different ways of thinking and comparing their philosophy with my subjective experience of truth, the principles I learned at the ashram have meaningfully added to my conception of self-actualization. For example, the Five Virtues of the Sikh tradition and some of the practices they entail (hospitality, meditation, openness to criticism, self-discipline) are now part of my mental model and I predict they will be key to this ongoing process of emotional development.