When Spiritual Practice May Not Work For You
by Jayaram V
Delusion manifests in the mind in various ways. Of them spiritual delusion or the illusion of spiritual activity is the most formidable one. It consumes even spiritual teachers. Jayaram V
What appears to be right on the path may end up being a distraction. What seem to help you and guide you may eventually lead you astray. Your progress on the spiritual path depends upon whether you have stable intelligence (stitha-prajna) that can sharply discern the truths of existence. Jayaram V
Your guru may shine upon you the light of discerning wisdom, but it will not remove your inner darkness unless you let it enter your mind and shine there. Jayaram V
There are many spiritual practices as there are theories, philosophies and religions. However, the most basic and the most important one is this. You have to consistently live with the conviction that you are an eternal Self, not the mind and body or the innumerable identities and associations you develop with the outside world. Having a mere belief or thought of it is not sufficient. You must make it into a reality, and let that thought become firmly rooted in your consciousness. As you strengthen that thought, you will experience gradual detachment from your physical self and material things and increased unity with the space in you and around you. You will also feel increased oneness with the all pervading spirit.
Of all the numerous identities that your ego builds to extend its influence in the world and secure things for itself, the spiritual identity of the Self is the best because it alone can set you free from everything that holds you back or keeps you in fear. If you can spend a whole day with the conviction that you are an eternal and indestructible Self and conduct yourself accordingly, you can consider yourself an advanced spiritual practitioner.
You may think that in today’s world spiritual liberation does not mean much. However, it is what we all yearn for, even in worldly life, although each one may pursue it rather differently in their own imperfect ways. In spiritual sense, liberation means becoming free from self-limiting beliefs, dependence, desires, and attachments that curtail your freedom to be yourself or live according to your beliefs and convictions. Your wealth, status, education, or power are not going to get you there. You will not reach it, until you have resolved everything in you that prevents you from being your natural self.
Your spirituality strengthens when you stabilize your mind in the conviction that you are a spiritual being and let your life be guided by it. Outward spiritual practices such as prayers, meditation and yoga work best when you use them around this core belief and manifest it in every aspect of your life, thinking and attitude. Your mind is such that if you have just an empty bowl and nothing else, you may gradually become attached to it and would not like to let it go. Now, imagine the situation where you deal with innumerable objects and form a deep attachment to them. Many lifetimes may be required to become free from all that you accumulate as your karmic past. Some people suggest that you can become free by isolating yourself from everything and practice detachment and renunciation. However, physical separation itself may not work unless you learn to see the emptiness of things and sever the mental bonds you form with them.
A few hundred years ago it was extremely difficult for a person to acquire religious or spiritual knowledge or practice spirituality. Unless, he was born in a family of deeply religious and scholarly people he had little chance of knowing the deeper aspects of his religion or its philosophy. In those days learning was a huge challenge. It took years and decades for students to acquire a semblance of mastery. Even that would not come easily.
Those who were driven by the desire or curiosity to know or seek salvation had to face great hardships to find suitable teachers and earn their trust and confidence before they could gain even preliminary knowledge. The difficulties are well described in the scriptures such as the Bhagavadgita which suggest that only after innumerable births and earning good karma one would be born in a pious family and find favorable circumstances to attain salvation.
Today, we have a different situation. We do not have any of those difficulties. Knowledge is now available to you in various forms. You can instantly access many ancient texts without paying a dime. There are many people who are eager to share their knowledge and wisdom for free. You do not have to memorize the texts by heart or spend hours to decipher their explicit and implicit meaning. A simple search on the Internet can yield immense knowledge. Without meeting any guru, simply sitting at home, and using your computer, mobile phone, or television set, you can listen to many spiritual discourses of spiritual masters and eminent scholars. Most public libraries stock a good collection of books and videos on spirituality, and religions, which you can use to increase your knowledge. People no more need to depend upon gurus only to acquire basic knowledge. You can download a lot of information from the Internet and use it for your practice.
Logically speaking, the explosion of information and the ease of its availability should have brought a tremendous transformation in people and made the world a better and more civilized place. It should have helped the humanity become more disciplined, knowledgeable, and spiritual. There should have been a noticeable increase in the number of good people who believed in their spirituality and worked for their salvation.
Unfortunately, it did not happen. On the contrary, you can see the opposite effect. More people today seek cheap entertainment and numerous distractions rather than spirituality and religious knowledge. Many even feel hesitant to show their spiritual side in public for the fear of being branded as orthodox or backward. Materialism, shallow egalitarianism, and secular ideologies that denigrate religion and spirituality have taken the hold of people’s minds since they have been highly romanticized by numerous institutions as the cultural themes of modern urban landscape.
Life is now more objectified and externalized to the extent that virtue and spirituality are viewed as weaknesses rather than strengths. People are motivated more by the prospect of immediate gratification of their minds and bodies rather than the long term rewards of spiritual growth and development. On any given day, the number of people who indulge in physical and sensual pleasures is several times more than those who seek spiritual solace. People invest their time and energy in spiritual practices to deal with their health problems or socialize with others rather become spiritual. It is obvious that more knowledge and greater access to spiritual wisdom have not translated into increased religious or spiritual activity. Instead religion and spirituality have become social and political issues.
Truly speaking, out of thousands of people only few become interested in spirituality. Even among them only a few eventually succeed in receiving the right knowledge and making progress on the path. The rest of them spend their time in outward spiritual activity without achieving corresponding inner transformation. Although they acquire knowledge of what to do to improve their practice, most of it remains unused. They may sit at the feet of their spiritual gurus and listen to them, organize religious functions and congregations to attract attention, or spend considerable time in promoting their self-interest through the network they develop in the process.
Such activities may give them the outward satisfaction of being spiritual, but inwardly they do not help them much. Many spiritual organizations break up or disappear after the demise of their founders because their followers do not live up to the standards set by them. It is not because the teachers have failed, but because human nature cannot easily be transformed or refined. A teacher diverts your attention from the external world to your inner world. He introduces to the methods that can potentially transform you into a spiritual being. However, he will not carry you on his back to the doors of salvation. That responsibility solely rests with you. You have to walk your walk and take your risks without any expectations. You cannot blame anyone or your teacher for your failure because the teacher removes the darkness of your mind, if only you open your mind to the light he shows.
Knowledge may come from any source, even from a fallen guru. Since God is omnipresent and omniscient, knowledge may come to you from many sides. As long as it is in harmony with your values and spiritual goals, you can use it. Most importantly, you do not need a lot of knowledge or master any scripture to practice spirituality. You can use the most basic knowledge found in any scripture and put it good practice. If you are serious and intent upon your goal, it does not matter whether you have the access to specialized knowledge or not, and whether you have the direct guidance of a teacher or not. If you have been reading spiritual books for some time, probably you already possess that knowledge and do not need any further. If you have not seen any change in you, it may be because you have not done enough putting that knowledge into practice.
Spiritual practice can potentially become a delusion, if you are not careful or sincere. It will give you the illusion of being involved and self-important but lead you nowhere. You will be just moving in circles without reaching your goal. Any spiritual practice in which you do not involve your soul is a mere worldly activity. Many people do not realize it. They focus upon the methods rather than the change that needs to be made in their thinking and outlook. They focus upon the teachers rather than their teachings. As a result, they develop more worldly attachment and bind themselves to either their teachers or their institutions.
People may feel fascinated by spiritual life and the images of solemnity and serenity associated with it, but the truth is there is nothing romantic about it. It is a very dull and hard life, in which you have to deny many joys and pleasures of the world to cultivate the inwardness. Many people cannot genuinely practice it for long. They do not want to leave behind the world that they know to pursue the world, about which they have little knowledge. They may be excited about the prospect of salvation or inner peace, but do not possess the courage to take the plunge. Hence, many people immerse themselves in a make believe spiritual effort that do not take them far.
For your spiritual salvation and peace of mind, you do not have to travel to faraway places and spend time in retreats and meditation camps. You should aim to reduce your dependence upon the world and external props. If you cannot do without company, or a particular environment, or setting, it means you are depending upon the world and continuing your involvement with it rather than becoming free from it. The purpose of spiritual effort should be to become free from your dependence and attachment with the external world and any group, movement, purpose, or teacher to which you are mentally drawn.
Great masters like Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, Aurobindo, and Jiddu Krishnamurthy had ordinary teachers. Yet they scaled great heights because they had the readiness and the inclination to become enlightened. They also followed simple spiritual practices and waited for the light to shine in them. They had their own share of problems and enemies, but they developed the strength to deal with them. If you are intent upon your spiritual development, you can accomplish a lot with a few simple practices, without deluding yourself with superficial activities. With just a fraction of the knowledge that you already know, you can go far on the spiritual path. You can choose to walk straight on the path or move in circles around your spiritual goals to delay your journey. It would be like making rounds (pradakshinas) around a temple, without entering the inner sanctum because your eyes are closed and you cannot see the main entrance.
May God bless and protect you
Seth Kelly Curtis