Family, friends, relatives, children, parents, siblings, community. It is both normal and generally accepted that people form attachments to those with whom they have close relations. Those attachments demand attention and effort. For those who have a calling to follow the religious life or a spiritual path, such attachments tend to distract and confuse the focus. The seeker wants to undertake meditation or prayer, or some form of contemplation, but the children demand attention and draw one out. It is difficult to reconcile the needs of one’s social circle with the focus and effort required to achieve the spiritual realisation.
Many religious traditions have tried to solve the question of attachment to family and friends with extreme isolation in the cloister or the monastery or nunnery. The devotee is required to cut all attachments radically and not maintain links to the former life. They ask for lifetime vows in many cases to bind the devotee ever closer to the path and help him avoid distractions.
Some cult leaders use these examples to gain control over their devotees, effectively cutting them off from any influence other than that of the leader. Techniques such as isolation are common in such circles.
There is of course a truth to the fact that those called to the spiritual life need to be able to focus and not be distracted. And it is true that in that sense, relations with those who are not following the spiritual path can pose challenges for the seeker. Yet, eventually, if the entire world is intended to be transformed and new relations developed, there must be some access to and influence between those who are tasked with developing the spiritual force and those who will eventually wind up needing to be open and receptive for the change to take place broadly.
There may also be cases where the seeker is called upon to immerse himself in the life of the world without being misled or distracted. The example of King Janaka in the ancient histories is one which illustrates this principle. His spiritual dedication took place within the context of enormous efforts in directing and managing a kingdom and a family and amidst enormous wealth and luxury.
In the end, each individual needs to find the way forward in their own individual journey, and for some this means isolation and separation, while for others, it may mean continued interface with the people of the world in a way that avoids the extremes of attachment that make spiritual practices difficult, if not impossible, to carry out amidst the day to day calls and demands of the world.
Sri Aurobindo notes: “It is not that one cannot have relations with people outside the circle of the sadhaks, but there too if the spiritual life grows within, it must necessarily affect the relation and spiritualise it on the sadhak’s side. And there must be no such attachment as would make the relation an obstacle or a rival to the Divine. Attachment to family etc. often is like that and, if so, it falls away from the sadhak. That is an exigence which, I think, should not be considered excessive. All that, however can be progressively done; a severing of existing relations is necessary for some, it is not so for all. A transformation, however gradual, is indispensable, — severance where severance is the right thing to do.”
“P.S. I must repeat also that each case differs — one rule for all is not practical or practicable. What is needed by each for his spiritual progress is the one desideratum to be held in view.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 11, Human Relationships in Yoga, Friendship, Affection and Love, pp 323-328
The need for severance becomes essential when a relationship becomes toxic. Even this circumstance need not be apart from one’s spiritual practice, indeed if we are on the mark, nothing can be separate.
The time comes when life events, such as ‘severance’, are no longer viewed as a choice… they simply unfold. We witness, accept, allow, release.
All of it another role that needed to play out on this earthly stage — both for the spiritual aspirant and for the severed party.
A divinely planned and executed script? So it would seem to be.