At almost any time in our life, we can suddenly be drawn to a spiritual path. We may ask ourselves, what if I am not just that person I am at work or with the family, but possess deep pools of being in which I can bathe in light? Then there is always, too, that nagging problem in a relationship or the unwanted habit that you have no clue how to say goodbye to. Just when you are up against the wall, you happen to find that tape or sermon where words giving great hope burst upon your soul. It really seems that the new program will not only cut through problems, but even shine the bright light of clarity over the entire personality. Are you one of those who has been there– taken up with great zeal the Christian life, or the Hindu or Buddhist path– but now want to tackle problems that didn’t just vaporize magically? Take a look, then, at these four stages of spiritual practice and see if you need to make some changes:
- Overlaying life with the template of wisdom: In the beginning, after you have gone to that talk or heard that tape that touched your heart, just go with it. Absorb the instructions for your new path in life. Follow them to the letter; don’t change them. My own teacher told me that the highest wisdom opened to those who don’t split attention but attended only to one thing at a time; so without a second thought, I ripped out the stereo system from my car to concentrate mindfully only on the road. The template the teaching supplies is the gateway to wisdom not accessible to normal patterns of thinking and acting.
- The miraculous joy of spiritual achievement: It would not be surprising if you watch problems like shyness, compulsive lateness, or serious addictions like drinking, just disappear, as if they never were problems. The Bhagavad Gita says, “I bow to that superior power which can make the dumb speak and the lame climb mountains.” When you overcome intractable problems (in my own case, my epileptic seizures went away), it is like a cripple throwing his crutches into the fire and walking. The fabulous energies you have tapped into indeed can move mountains you thought would be forever immovable, and you realize the truth of the miracles of Jesus and other outstanding teachers.
- Subterranean forces uncomfortably stir: Sometimes big problems we thought were gone just take on a new form. For example, it may be we had violent fits of temper in the old days before beginning our practice. For a long time, it seems they are gone, but at deeper levels, we still seethe in low level fury. Then we figure out at some level that to “put others first,” as most spiritual programs say to do, we can still be kind and selfless to people who have the power to advance our position, yet take out our less noble feelings on others when no one important is watching.
- Re-evaluate the spiritual program with regard to all aspects of yourself: Say your program includes selfless service to others, training your appetites, full attention to the work at hand, along with some form of internal prayer. But what about the desire to take up sailing or knitting, or to get back in touch with old friends from high school, or let your boss or partner know what strong feelings you have been holding back? Think of important needs like these that don’t seem spiritual. If such needs remain unmet but the program and its goal are still very important, seek out a group or therapist with whom you can talk about them. This may include going back into childhood and reliving unhappy periods long pushed aside, to gain more awareness of this subsurface stratum of personality that has never subscribed to the spiritual regimen (and may work subtly to undermine it).
Moreover, there is something to be said for going wholeheartedly with enthusiasm of such pitch that you may never feel again in your life; which can, indeed, cut through a lot of problems nothing else has worked for. So overlay your whole life with the new practices, centering every possible decision and activity around them.
Over the months and years, the ego– no pushover– simply preempts the spiritual tenets to its own purposes, reserving the niceness more for those occasions when it will promote our status, and less for day to day situations. What has happened is, since we are not Jesus or Mother Teresa, the stress of trying to be that person who is always making progress has pushed other less “spiritual” personal needs down. When we realize we are really living on two tracks-one spiritual and the other, hidden and underground-it’s time to leave the childlike faith in the template and give some attention to things it didn’t address.
Now-and this takes great courage-look at all you are not doing and being when you are practicing selfless service or denying personal desires. Then, strive to remake your program especially for you, throwing out all that is not working and keeping the core. The idea is to feed all parts of your being. For example, Mirabend, the great disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, realized in the midst of her village uplift service in India that she needed to feed her desire for the music of Beethoven. She missed this passion too much. To do this, she had to quit her Gandhian service and return to the west, still holding her lifelong works and practices close to her heart. Whether or not your new book group or those delectable brownies coming out of the oven look spiritual to the world-and chances are they will not– build your whole life around this new synthesis of spiritual living and attention to human needs.
No one from the Vatican or important spiritual journals is going to contact you with congratulations; but what you have done is to acknowledge the homely, pushed down parts of personality. Now it is not just your social mask that is spiritual; you have invited your entire self, the outward and public as well as the hidden creatures of your underworld, to come and join you on your spiritual voyage.
About the Author:
Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran’s edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Dr. Ruppenthal has published numerous articles on such sites as Beliefnet.com and Healthy Wealthy nWise. Visit Stephen’s work at www.directawakenings.com.