Basic Spirituality for Worldly People
by Jayaram V
Summary: This is about the essential principles of your basic spirituality and how you can put them to practice in worldly life.
Every religion has a political, social, cultural and personal dimension. The first three depend upon the last, since a religion is strong and popular only when it is practiced by its people. The personal dimension of any religion has two aspects, the ritual and spiritual. The ritual dimension makes it popular while the spiritual dimension gives it depth and sustaining power. The spiritual dimension is far more important in the long run because it builds inner strength and helps its adherents stay strong and resolute amidst problems and difficulties.
When you practise your religion, you breathe life into it, which in turn elevates your character and conduct and illuminates your life. When a large number of people practise their faith, it becomes a powerful force of change both within and without. Religions have transformed communities and helped in the advancement of civilizations, although at times they failed to unite people or prevent wars and bloodshed. They have no value, unless they elevate human consciousness and change our thinking and attitude for individual and common good. It is possible only when they are put to right use. In other words, the onus of making any religion good or bad eventually depends upon us. Since religions are such powerful forces of change, it is essential that we bring their spiritual teachings into focus and use them for our own good.
The principles of basic spirituality
Hinduism survived these millenniums not because of any particular institution or political power but because of the will of its people and the strength of their faith. Caste played an important role in keeping the community and preserving the family traditions, although it also contributed to internal divisions, inequality and social injustice.
More importantly, Hinduism survived because of its spiritual base, and the wide range of solutions or alternatives it offers to people to practice their faith and cope with their problems. It also provides a vision of life that stretches beyond the current life of each living being into eternity through numerous births and rebirths with liberation as the final resort and ultimate solution to the problem of suffering.
A religion has better chances of surviving the ravages of time, when it has a strong spiritual side and when people practise it without any external motivation. In this discussion we will focus upon the principles of basic spirituality for worldly people from the modern perspective, which are an integral part of the Hindu way of life, and how anyone can use them or express them in his or her daily life.
Faith means faith in your essential spirituality and your spiritual destiny. The scriptures say that you are an eternal being, but do you sincerely believe in it? The first step in practicing spirituality is to acknowledge that you are a spiritual entity and identify yourself with it rather than with your body, name, fame, status, linguistic group, region, profession, caste and so on. Most of the time we confuse the ego for the Self. The ego is the outer crust on the Self. It needs to be dissolved before you can truly be your spiritual Self. The idea that you are an eternal, indestructible Self, must be firmly implanted in your mind, without which you cannot truly practise your faith or adhere to its values. If you think that you are a human, you will remain a human. If you think you are a divine entity, you will gradually be so, and your thinking and attitude will also change in proportion to the strength of your conviction. Hence, our scriptures suggest that we must constantly think about the Self and become fixed in that thought. For that faith is important.
Character is the sum of mental and moral qualities that are approved by society at large. It is your essential nature, personality, or the sum of what you are and what you think you are. Character comes from the purity of thought and intention. You must be inherently good to have the right character and attitude. Your character is well reflected in your thinking and behavior, and in your responses and attitudes. It is built on the foundation of virtues such as compassion, truthfulness, honesty, humility, etc. You should avoid causing hurt or harm to others with your words or actions, or taking what does not truly belong to you. You should be truthful to those who are closest to you and who matter to you, keep your promises and honor your commitments. Whatever values your faith upholds as aspects of God, you must uphold them too. You must also show respect for your tradition and values, which arise from it. Our tradition says that one must respect gods, elders, seers, teachers, parents, ancestors, morality, duty, sacrifice, the Self within and the God above. If you see God in all, you will inherently respect everything. The Bhagavadgita says that the self is both the friend and enemy of the self. Hence, you should avoid sabotaging your life with self-destructive behavior.
Judgment is the ability to make intelligent and thoughtful decisions. Your destiny and the course of your life depend upon the decisions you make or do not make. In a sense, your opinions, assumptions, notions, beliefs and conclusions are also judgments only, and they too influence your thinking, behavior and your judgment. Your judgment depends upon your discernment or the ability to separate things from one another and know them as they are. Our scriptures say that if you are pure, your mind will be pure and your discernment will also be pure. For that, you must practise atma-samyama or self-control. This is true even from the perspective of modern psychology. To cultivate the purity of mind, you must practise detachment, sameness, equanimity and self-restraint. In silence, you become a better observer. Hence, spiritual people regularly practise silence. When you have these, you will use your judgment to know people and discern things. It is also important that you use your judgment to make wise decisions rather than to criticize people or judge them from a high moral ground.
Duty is the sum of your responsibilities and obligations as a human being, as a member of your family, society or the world, and as a practitioner of your faith. In life you have many duties and obligations. You cannot neglect them, ignore them or avoid them, however difficult they may and whatever the consequences may be. From the Bhagavadgita we learn that if you have faith and inclination, it will be much easier to perform difficult tasks without fear or doubt and stay on course. Since actions have consequences, you must be careful with what attitude you engage in actions. It is better to perform them as a service to others or as an obligation to God or as part of your spiritual practice, whether you like them or not. If you strengthen your faith in your spiritual identity, and perform your actions as a spiritual entity, your actions will not bind you. Therefore, whatever you do, do them with the awareness that you are an eternal Self and you have a higher spiritual destiny.
Your vision is the sum of your knowledge, beliefs and expectations. It is what you want to see ahead of you, what you want to achieve in life and where you would like to focus your mind and energies. If your vision is broader, you will have more opportunities to improve yourself and cultivate qualities that make you an exceptional person and lead you to excellence. It also gives you fortitude and tolerance to absorb suffering and sustain your faith and strength in difficulties. On the path of spirituality, your ultimate aim should be to cultivate the vision of God, to see all in yourself and yourself in all. The first step towards that goal is to instill in your mind qualities such as empathy and compassion, so that you can feel other people’s pain and suffering and either help them or avoid causing them further hurt. You may begin it with regard to those who matter to you and whose happiness you cherish.
We are by nature selfish. Unfortunately, selfishness and spirituality do not go together. You are either selfish or spiritual but cannot be both at the same time. You may practise spirituality for selfish reasons, but it has its own negative repercussions which will do you more harm than good. Our scriptures equate selfishness with evil and consider it the source of all evil in creation. According to them any actions which you perform with selfish desires are sinful and lead to increased suffering and negative karma. They also suggest that egoism is the cause of selfishness. Hence, if you identify yourself with your mind and body or name and form, you will be selfish, but if you identify yourself with the eternal Self in you, you will gradually transcend your egoism and selfishness. Selfless service and charity are two other virtues, which open your mind to the idea of selflessness. Selfishness exists as long as individuality exists. It cannot be wished away. However, through service and charitable activities and by showing genuine concern for others and their happiness, you can make a beginning and strengthen the idea.
Freedom or liberation is our ultimate goal. However, that path is not easy, nor it is for everyone. The first step is to understand what freedom truly means. It is to be free from anything that controls you, limits you, keeps you bound, prevents you, disturbs you, restricts you or incapacitates you. It is freedom from all limitations, fears, desires, expectations and attachments which hold you back from being yourself. That freedom is almost impossible to achieve in worldly life. In worldly life we cannot achieve total freedom, but we can achieve limited mental freedom from worries and anxieties and self-imposed limitations by thinking through problems, resolving our fears, and overcoming our mental blocks. On the spiritual side, one can cultivate detachment and dispassion and learn to let go of things that disturb the mind.
Any religion is just a raft or a boat. It is a means not an end in itself. You should be careful not to let your faith strengthen your ego and give you an air of superiority. Many people become stuck in their religious identities as they begin to enjoy the privileges that come with it. There is a reason why Hinduism is not a religion. We are not supposed to become stuck in religious labels and identities. We should not practice it because of the social or personal privileges it extends to us.
On the spiritual path the social dimension of any religion is a potential obstacle. At some point on the path of liberation we have to leave behind our religious identities and our attachment to it and move on. The purpose of renunciation is essentially the same. We have to leave behind all the excess baggage which we accumulate in our lives and which can potentially interfere with our progress, including our attachment to our religious identities and social privileges such as caste, status or family name. Basic spirituality helps us prepare for such a transition. It helps us live responsibly and pursue the four aims of human life, without compromising our spiritual values or our chances of liberation.
Peace and Love
Seth Kelly Curtis