Heartfelt Answers to Everyday Dilemmas on the Spiritual Path
by Asha Praver
Q: I make the same mistakes over and over. Despite my best intentions, I can’t seem to make any spiritual progress. Everyday life also confuses me. If, as the scriptures say, this world is a dream, why work so hard to succeed? Compared to divine realization, isn’t everything else trivial?
A: Every apple seed contains within it the potential to become a fruit-bearing tree. It doesn’t happen all at once though. It may be tiresome for the seed first to sprout, then be a twig, then a sapling; but it is the fastest, in fact the only way to become a tree. There are inescapable stages of development.
So it is with the soul. Self-realization is our divine destiny, but we can’t get there in one leap. Perhaps your repeated failure is not caused by lack of will power but lack of patience—trying to reach the goal without first walking the path.
It is tempting to say, for example, if renunciation is required, “Now I must renounce! If austerities are beneficial, let me banish all comfort from my life!” You may think this proof of your dedication, but in fact it is looking for a shortcut that isn’t there.
If you reach too far beyond your actual realization, inevitably you will collapse back, perhaps to a place lower than where you started. You may think you are compromising your ideals to aim for less, but for you this may be the surest route to success.
Spiritual progress is both science and art. The science is comprised of the divine laws of the universe; the art is knowing which to apply and when.
About everyday life, I used to share your confusion. If everything in this world is ephemeral, why bother? Intuitively I felt compelled to strive for excellence, but philosophically I couldn’t figure out why. In Swamiji’s book, The Essence of the
Bhagavad Gita, I found the answer.
He speaks of the Self-realized person as triguna rahitam. This means one who has transcended the three gunas—the fluctuating energies that make up the material world. Tamo guna is confining, darkening, downward pulling. Rajo guna is activating, restless. Sattwa guna is uplifting and calm.
To determine what is forward for you spiritually, ask yourself, “What guna, or combination of gunas, am I expressing?” Eventually we must go beyond the material world altogether,
leaving even sattwa guna behind, but like the seed becoming a tree, we have to get there in stages.
“Why bother? Nothing is real.” This may sound like philosophical truth, but it is more likely tamo guna—fear and laziness masquerading as wisdom. Superficially, lazy resembles
calm, but they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Fear is paralyzing. Better to be intensely active, even restless in your activity, than succumb to either. The first victory must be over tamo guna.
Imagine the rim of a bicycle wheel with spokes leading into the center. We are all spread out at different points around the rim. The way to reach the center depends on how the rim is oriented from your point of view.
Those at the bottom must go up; those at the top, down. For some, more discipline is required; others need to relax and go with the flow. If the opposites happen to meet, each may declare, “Only my way is right!” They don’t see that progress is directional, in relation to the center.
If Mahatma Gandhi, in the middle of the movement to free India, had decided to use his fame instead to open a law practice, everyone would say he had fallen. If a lazy, do-nothing man finally got off the couch, went to law school, and made a fortune, everyone would say, “Well done!”
Imagine now that the points on the rim are aspects of your own karma. Eventually all karma must be resolved in God, but you can’t do it in one swoop. You have to move step-by-step, according to where you are in relation to the center.
On the path of Self-realization there is no manual of Right Behavior you can put on like a uniform. You expand from within—like a seed—from the heart of your being. Dogmas won’t do it; intuition is needed.
When Jesus was asked, “How can you tell a true prophet from a false one?” he answered, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The answer to “Why bother?” is the same: “Look at the fruits.”
Think of that man lying on the couch, letting others support him. No matter how highfalutin’ his philosophy, he is a lazy bum.
This world is a spiritual gymnasium. The equipment is the circumstances your karma has brought. Even if you go to the gym every day, though, just sitting there won’t make you strong. You have to run the treadmill and lift the weights.
What you accomplish in life may be unimportant compared to eternity, but the consciousness you develop in order to succeed is the path to freedom.
Great masters and highly-evolved souls know far better than we do the dream nature of this world. Still, they set the example by working hard to accomplish what God has given them to do.
Swamiji would go over a manuscript dozens of times before he considered it ready for publication. Even after a book was printed, he would edit it again, if he felt it could be improved.
When members of our community were first learning to sing his music, Swamiji would often stop them mid-performance to correct something. Certain people objected. Correcting singers in public was embarrassing, they said.
“They need to put out the energy to do it right,” Swamiji replied.
Singing wrong notes was only a symptom. Laziness and lack of concentration—tamo guna—was the more important problem to be overcome. Learning to sing properly was a way of training their consciousness. Most knew this, and welcomed Swamiji’s guidance.
As my mother aged, her body began to fail. Everyday tasks became more and more of a challenge. “Getting old is not for sissies!” she often said. The same is true of the path. The first essential attitude for the devotee is courage.
In my mother’s struggle with her body, defeat was inevitable. No physical body lasts forever. Nor does every seed become a tree. By contrast, on the spiritual path, victory is assured. It is not a matter of if, but when.
To my everlasting embarrassment, I remember a conversation I had with Swamiji once when tamo guna had me in its grip. Actually, it wasn’t a conversation, because Swamiji said nothing.
I was facing a big challenge. To be fair, it was a serious, lifelong issue, and I was far from the finish line.
“Everything in my life is going well, except this one thing. I would be so happy if it would just go away!”
In other words: If the spiritual path were not so hard, it would be easier.
Silent and expressionless, Swamiji stared at me, my words hanging in the air between us, as tears of self-pity rolled down my cheeks.
Several moments passed. Then the phone rang. Swamiji answered it without even a glance of apology. It was to confirm a doctor’s appointment he had been trying to arrange. When the call ended, so did the interview.
Don’t think for a moment that Swamiji was being rude. Even then I knew his response was brilliant: Stop whining!
I shudder to think what might have happened if he had shown even an ounce of sympathy. I would have clung to it like a drowning person to a log. It would not, however, have been my raft over the ocean of delusion, but a stone taking me to the bottom of the sea.
I persevered. What choice did I have? Either wallow in misery, or make an effort to transcend it. I can’t say even now that I have conquered that delusion, but by the grace of God it no longer defines me.
The pathway to success is paved with failure. There is no alternate route.
To rail against yourself for repeated failure gives tamo guna the win, eroding your confidence and sapping your strength. It doesn’t matter if you have been over the same ground a thousand times. If it is where you find yourself, the only thing to do is move forward from there.