By Swami Shraddhananda
Coming to the United States in 1957, Swami Shraddhananda was head of the Vedanta Society in Sacramento from 1970 until his death in 1996. He was the author of Seeing God Everywhere and Story of an Epoch as well as many articles published in both English and Bengali journals. “Spiritual Life: Its Conditions and Pitfalls” appears in Seeing God Everywhere (Vedanta Press, 1996).
The subtle, extensive, ancient way has touched me. I have realized it myself. Through that the sages—the knowers of Brahman—also go to the heavenly sphere after the fall of the body, being freed even while living (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.8).
The “ancient way”—a path extending from humanity to God—cannot be compared to an American nonstop freeway. This subtle, inner path has many stops and degrees of gradation. In some areas it is level and smooth, and in other regions it passes through difficult mud and gravel terrain. Its course may run through the glaring stretches of a desert or along the sharp curves and bends of precipitous mountains. In spite of all these obstructions, we have to journey determinedly along this ancient way leading to God.
Fortunately, there are rest stops all along the way, which are equipped with replenishing fuel, road maps, and guides. The guides are experienced travelers who will give correct directions and assist in safe arrivals.
This ancient way of spirituality is lit with bright hopes, but it also has dark pitfalls. It is a difficult but glorious road to climb. Those who have succeeded encourage us to proceed patiently and cautiously and warn us never to ignore the directions. They assert that we can reach the goal; we can know God in this very life. The highways and byways of ordinary life run in circles; they seem to lead nowhere. When a seeking mind discovers that worldly existence is only a treadmill and worldly pursuits are futile, the flame of spiritual inquiry is ignited. The fear of death, the promise of God, the intense desire to understand love’s deepest meaning, and a restless yearning for truth all urge us to aspire to spiritual awakening.
What is spiritual life? A life centered in God. It is not an unusual life. According to the attitudes we develop and the manner in which we live, our life on earth can be spiritual or nonspiritual. We are spiritual when the Divine enters our thoughts, actions, desires, emotions, and aspirations. Then He is not distant or theoretical, but a living God who guides our lives. The first pitfall, then, on the path to God is confusion about the meaning of spiritual life. Spiritual life is, in essence, to realize the divinity within us and to manifest it in our daily life.
A few basic requirements are necessary for effective and deep spiritual living. First we must have the faith that the goal we seek does, in fact, exist: There is a supreme, unchanging Truth—a Reality that is the foundation and the operative power of everything that exists. We have to believe that behind this world’s flux, there is a cosmic intelligence, love, and unity that is God.
Though difficult to see at an early stage of the journey, it is necessary to believe that God can be experienced here and now. He is the supreme object of our love; He is our everlasting friend and companion. Somehow we must develop and strengthen this faith.
Let us take an example: Jesus Christ walked in the city of Jerusalem, teaching and consoling people and thereby changing their lives; it was in Jerusalem that the final scenes of his life were enacted. Faithful Christians everywhere hope to visit the Holy Land, but even though they may not have seen it, they never deny its existence. They know that many people have been to Jerusalem. In the same way, as we walk the spiritual path, let us be confident that although God is not yet visible, He is only a short distance away. He can be experienced—as many fortunate men and women have found throughout the ages.
The nature of God is infinite. He manifests Himself in endless ways, therefore the manifestations of God are various. He is impersonal—without name or form—or personal—with name and form. He can become an avatar, a divine incarnation, like Rama, Krishna, Jesus Christ, and Buddha. One should not be dogmatic about God’s nature. Let everyone have his or her own conception of God. The Upanishads tell us that Brahman is both saguna, with attributes; and nirguna, without attributes; we can experience God on both these levels.
The second pitfall is lack of faith. How do we acquire faith? Spiritual teachers reply, “Through holy company.” We need to seek those who are living in direct communion with God. We can witness in their lives the proof of God’s limitless knowledge and love. Our weak notions about God become enlivened by holy company. Holy company also includes reading the scriptures from all religions; they are records of the direct spiritual experiences of holy men and women. When we read the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Koran, and the sacred books of all religions, we catch a glimpse of spiritual truths. They speak of the joy, peace, and strength of spiritual life. When we read these accounts in the scriptures, our faith grows.
Another kind of faith is also necessary: faith in ourselves. Swami Vivekananda said, “First develop faith in yourself, then faith in God will come.” Doubt is a serious pitfall along the way, a great obstruction in spiritual life. It limits our capabilities; we have to do away with it.
An individual’s mind, body, and energy have limitations, but power and knowledge can be developed. There are great potentialities deep within the recesses of the mind. We all possess a hidden insight, an intuition, by which we can rise to the spiritual level and eventually reach the ultimate destination of life, the realization of God. We should therefore always be careful that our faith, both objective and subjective, is being nurtured.
A living and loving interest in spiritual life is an essential requirement. A joyful, enthusiastic attitude while actively following the directions given by one’s spiritual teacher is necessary to avoid the pitfalls along the way. A joyful, enthusiastic attitude also develops purity of character. Actually, the Self, the essential truth of our nature, is ever pure. It is a spark of the Divine. Until we realize that inner divinity, of course we make mistakes, but these mistakes indirectly help us in our search for God. We should never brood over them. A healthy attitude is to be cautious and to decide not to commit those errors again. As we grow purer, we are less likely to make mistakes and lose our way, and less likely to fall into pitfalls. We develop an attitude of renunciation, and we increasingly feel the Lord’s presence in our hearts and minds.
Renunciation is a spiritual attitude. It is not the abandonment of home, family, children, education, or job. Rather, renunciation is a joyful disregard for undesirable attachments for the sake of God. The heart will be made pure with the development of this attitude. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
People are normally very attached to their egos, and think, “I am such an important person.” There is some pleasure in this egotistic feeling, but when we come to spiritual life, we have to give up this false pleasure. If there is too much egotism, it will obstruct our spiritual journey. Since we cannot give up the ego altogether, it has to be spiritualized.
To achieve this we must undertake various spiritual practices. The regular practice of meditation, prayer, japam (repetition of a name of God, or mantra), contemplation, and spiritual studies is extremely necessary. Only earnest seekers will succeed: there is no room for triviality here. Not following a regular routine of spiritual practice is a serious pitfall. The quality of our effort in these practices determines the nature and course of our progress. No one can succeed without practice and perseverance.
We should avoid the pitfall of despair and confusion by seeking guidance from experienced people. Their counsel, in addition to the holy scriptures, is our “road map.” Every phase of life, practical and spiritual, requires guidance. So in order to proceed along the “highway” safely, it is wise to stop now and then and seek instructions from an experienced guide, rather than pushing on blindly. Too much pride in ourselves with an unwillingness to learn from others is a stumbling block.
Another pitfall is our impatience. After hearing or reading about the blessings of spiritual life we become eager to have those experiences immediately! We begin to practice a little meditation for a week or two; nothing remarkable happens, and we feel frustrated. Then doubt comes and we impatiently say, “Oh, let us try another method.” This impatience is the wrong attitudethe D and a treacherous pitfall. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that if you want to dig a well, you have to dig in one place, and you have to dig deeper and deeper in that one place. Upon receiving proper instructions from an experienced spiritual teacher, we should continue our spiritual practice with great care and persistence. Our interest in spiritual life should be genuine and deep, not superficial or shallow. A superficial mind cannot consistently adhere to anything. A person may have a little spiritual experience and then think, “Well, that is enough.” But such people only fool themselves.
Our spiritual pursuit cannot have sincerity and depth if we remain attached to sense pleasures. The mind will remain on the levels of tamas and rajas, leading it restlessly outward. Lack of self-control is another pitfall, and we should make a regular practice of watchfulness over the senses. With the calmness of sattva, the senses can be tamed and quieted by developing self-control. Watchfulness can be achieved by stepping back from the senses and trying to separate ourselves from them. We can observe the senses reaching outward like tentacles extending in all directions, fastening themselves on this object or that, impelled by desire after desire, and then returning to the repository of the mind. Through an awareness of the movements of the mind, we can filter out nonspiritual thoughts and ideas before they strike and contaminate the mind. We can avoid pitfalls by observing what is approaching the mind through the senses.
Another spiritual pitfall is vain argumentation; that is, too much intellectualism. Spiritual life is not words; it is one’s own personal experience. When we take a college course in religious philosophy, we seek information and reason out ideas necessary for writing an article or a book. But for our own personal spiritual experience, we do not need very much information or argumentation.
When these spiritual practices become an integral part of our lives, and when we have made noticeable progress, a particular pitfall must be avoided: the reappearance of that villain—the vain ego! The vain ego will enter, take the platform, demand applause, and claim: “I am such a remarkable person! Everyone notices how special I am.” We should be on the lookout for this kind of egotism. These are some of the roadblocks that can be expected along the spiritual way. Let us be conscious that these pitfalls are there, but we need not be fearful. We have only to be cautious and prepared. If we have intense faith and are humble, sincere, and patient, we need not be afraid of any pitfall. The spiritual path is a sure path. It will lead us to our destination, God—even in this life.