Ten Reflections For a Spiritual Person
Spiritual life is not easy to follow because on the spiritual path you have to wage a constant struggle against nature, against your mind and body, against the established traditions of society and against the clinging and the lures of life, which constantly try to wean you away from your chosen path. With a lot of negativity and discouragement coming from all directions, for neophytes it is a challenge to remain focused on their practice and stick to their spiritual beliefs. In the early stages of your practice, a part of your personality still remains caught up in worldly desires, because of which you experience a lot of resistance and inner turmoil when you try to divert your mind’s attention to spiritual subjects.
It is where many people feel discouraged and drop out of the path. In the Buddhist tradition we come across ten great reflections, suggested by the Buddha, which are immensely helpful to spiritual aspirants to overcome distractions and difficulties and stay firmly on the path of liberation. The Buddha mentioned them in one of his discourses, in response to a question, when he was staying at a monastery near Sravasthi in northern India. The ten reflections are collectively known as the dasa dharma sutra (dasa dhamma sutta) or the Ten Aphorisms of Dharma. They are so generic in nature that both Buddhists and non-Buddhists can use them to remain on the chosen spiritual path and continue their journey. They are particularly useful to overcome distractions, negativity and the old habits of the mind and the body. They are explained below.
1. I am now a different person and lead a different life
Spiritual life is much different from the worldly life. What you do out of desire, what you seek and what you aim for in worldly life, you renounce in spiritual life. For the new initiates this poses a great problem. When they begin to control their desires and habitual thought patterns, it creates pain and suffering and stirs up a lot of discontentment and misery in their consciousness. By nature we are pleasure loving. We try to avoid pain by all means. Spiritual people are expected to be indifferent to both. They may be even asked by their tradition to embrace pain and suffering rather than pleasure and happiness as a part of their practice to cultivate tolerance and patience. In worldly life when you are confronted with an unpleasant situation you will not remain calm. You will do something about it, reacting either negatively or positively. You will take some action to protect yourself or your will confront it, according to the situation and your judgment. On the spiritual path you do not have the compulsion of fighting your problems with an egoistic mindset. If you want to use the opportunity to change your thinking and attitude, you have to deal with them in a different manner. Here you will not take any action that gives your ego a sense of comfort or a feeling of pride. You will invite them into your life with an open mind and learn to accept them and appreciate them for their value and importance in shaping your consciousness and your behavior. A spiritual person seeking liberation from the cycle of births and deaths embraces difficulties in order to overcome old attachments and preferences. His ultimate purpose is to cultivate equanimity or sameness towards all pairs of opposites.
Spiritual life therefore demands a patient and perceptive towards the problems and challenges on the path. This affirmation is useful to cultivate such an attitude and meet with the demands spiritual life imposes upon you. It gives you the courage and the conviction to control your habitual thought patterns and overcome your deep rooted desires. It prepares you mentally and spiritually to deal with the uncertainties, humiliation, doubt and the emptiness which arise from renunciation and detachment. Use this reflection to put yourself in a right frame of mind, whenever you feel that you are getting involved with worldly life or your old thoughts about life and enjoyment are resurfacing in your consciousness. Reflect upon it whenever you find your mind is straying into old memories and smoldering passions or whenever your ego rears its head and you feel the urge to defend or assert yourself and your opinions.
2. I am dependent upon others
There is a great deal of interdependence in the world. We do not usually recognize it or feel grateful about it. We think that every success that we achieve is because of our individual merits or some chance events. But from the time you are born you receive help from innumerable sources, without which it would not be possible for you to live at all. Whether you are worldly or spiritual, you cannot exist without interacting with the world or without depending upon others for your survival and sustenance. Every living being is connected with life’s innumerable streams in mysterious ways. Whether you are aware of it or not and whether you give them the permission or not, numerous people make possible your life and your experiences. The world is your great teacher. It is also your benefactor. You learn from it valuable lessons. You depend upon it to perform your actions and also exhaust your karma. Countless people have helped you in the past to be what you are today. You may not even know most of them personally, but without their help, you would not have come this far or become what you are today. Think of your parents, your teachers, your relations, your friends, your enemies, total strangers, plants and animals, elements, nature and gods, who served you and helped you from the time you were born till now. Most of them might have disappeared from your life and you may not even care to remember them. But they all played certain roles in shaping your life and your personality. They taught you lessons. They gave you experiences. They showed you the ways of the world. They taught you about friendship, betrayal, pain, suffering, enmity, love, generosity and humanity. They expanded your consciousness in their own individual ways. However independent you may think you are, you are indebted to the world and the people who help you in their own little or significant ways to create your identity and your awareness, which you proudly claim as yours.
It is a misconception to believe that if you renounce the world, you become independent of it. In fact you become more dependent upon it as you renounce your desire to promote yourself or live for yourself. As a spiritual person you may live in isolation and practice your meditation in secluded places or in the comforts of a monastery or an ashram. But someone needs to feed you and take care of your daily needs to ensure that your spiritual practice continues without interruption. You have to be grateful to them, who love you, who hate you, who venerate you, who make fun of you, who cook your food, who clean the floor, who keep the lamps burning and who keeps a watch on you or the place when you are in meditation or asleep or sick. As a spiritual person you may renounce your relationships and your worldly desires. But it should not make you feel indifferent to the world or the people around you. However isolated you may be from the world and the people, you cannot exist without them. The world may be an illusion or a difficult place to live, but you depend upon it and have a much deeper connection with it than you imagine. This reflection is useful to remember this fundamental truth and live in a state of gratitude and compassion towards others. It also helps you cultivate a balanced attitude and friendliness (mitrata) towards others, without being judgmental and without assuming moral or spiritual superiority over them.
3. I should now live a different life and behave differently
This affirmation is very useful in the early stages of spiritual practice, when one begins to adapt oneself to a new way of life. When you are in Rome you have to live like a Roman. This is very true in case of spiritual life. When you are on the spiritual path, you have to live and act like a spiritual person. You have to learn a new routine, a new mindset, new ways of thinking and responding. You have to follow the rules and the code of conduct that is prescribed for you. You have to respect the authority of your masters and the scriptures, curbing your egoistic thoughts and rebellious nature. You have to do it without losing your balance and your mind, and you have to do it day after day, without the compulsion to seek the approval of others or win their appreciation. Till your mind is settled, you have to be your own guard and your own guide. You have to keep a constant watch on yourself and bring your mind and thoughts back to the life that you have agreed to lead as a promise to yourself that you would work for your salvation and free yourself from the life that you found least comforting. This affirmation reminds you of that promise and helps to stay in control and in balance.
In the early stages of practice, when spiritual aspirants are not yet completely ready, they go through a stormy period, dealing with the old habits of their minds and self-preservation instinct. They have to bear heat and cold with composure and live a frugal life, denying themselves the usual comforts to which they were accustomed before. They have to overcome their passion for things and their desire for even such simple things as tasty food, a nice dress or a comfortable bed. They have to spend hours sitting and meditating, alone or in groups. They have to practice silence for days together to become familiar with the movements of their consciousness. They have to become mindful, merciful, careful, sensitive, dispassionate and patient as they subject themselves to self-denial and self-discipline. They have to practice virtue in word and deed, controlling their desires and cultivating non-violence, contentment, truthfulness, cleanliness and forgiveness. They also need to review their priorities, shun the company of their friends and relations and gradually reorient themselves form a seeking and striving attitude to that of contentment and introspection. The restrictions they have to impose upon themselves are part of the package. They are meant to prepare them for facing more serious difficulties and demons of defilement which they face at a later stage. This affirmation gives them the fortitude to adapt themselves to the new way of life, as they walk on the edge of worldliness, overcoming their likes and dislikes and their habitual responses, and respond to the problems and opportunities according to the standards established for them by their tradition. It is especially useful to control their thoughts and desires and keep their composure and inner balance, when they have to deal with worldly people on a regular basis or when their minds are caught between the pairs of opposites and their likes and dislikes. If they keep reflecting upon it frequently, the idea becomes entrenched deeply in the consciousness and becomes their second nature.
4. Can I find fault with my virtues and my personal conduct?
However good and ornamental it may be, if a water carrying pitcher has one tiny crack, it fails to hold the water. However pious and good spiritual people may be, if they have even minor faults, they fail to reach the state of liberation. On the spiritual path, there are no shortcuts. You have to work assiduously to perfect your mind and body and make yourself fit for the journey. You have to review your progress to make sure that you are not leaving out anything that may give you trouble at a later stage. This affirmation can be used to check the various virtues that you are supposed to cultivate and the rules and regulations that you have exemplify through your behavior as prescribed by your tradition.
There is no place for laxity and self-deception on the spiritual path. Moral purity and right conduct are the foundation upon which rests the possibility of your liberation. People have to remain on guard, even after they spend years in contemplation and self-transformation, without falling into the trap of complacency. They have to keep a watch on themselves, even when they are engaged in the most ordinary tasks, such as eating food or taking bath. In worldly life you may take certain liberties with your virtues and your behavior. But in spiritual life you cannot go far unless you address all your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. If you don’t, your mind will bring out all your sleeping demons and subject you to moral and mental crisis. If you leave gaping holes in your consciousness, negative thoughts will enter into it and create problems. This affirmation is useful to review one’s progress everyday and look for tiny opportunities to improve one’s behavior and thinking.
5. Will the masters approve my virtues and conduct?
On the spiritual path you should not only subject yourself to critical self-evaluation but also test yourself against the highest standards of morality and virtue that are available to you. To know about one’s conduct and behavior, critical self-evaluation alone is not sufficient. One should also review one’s progress using the standards applied by spiritual masters whom society accepts and reveres as role models and perfect beings. People’s judgment usually comes from their attachments, their likes and dislikes or from their personal convictions and prejudices. Sometimes they also evaluate others out of anger, fear, envy, pride or love. Their opinions and judgment are also not reliable because they are fickle and they keep changing their opinions frequently for one reason or the other. Ignorance is another important factor. If you are not well informed or if do not have the complete picture, very likely your opinions and decision may be imperfect and even incorrect. So it is difficult to rely upon other people to know about ourselves, especially when they have their axes to grind and when they are not sincere, impartial and perfect.
The masters of wisdom are enlightened beings, who are committed to truth and who are free from the impurities of the mind. They have an insightful ability to discern truth and know the right from the wrong. They have the wisdom to clarify our doubts and interpret our scriptures. We can learn a great deal about right living and right conduct from them by observing them and measuring ourselves against them. So, if you want to know about your progress truly, use this question to know how they will evaluate you and where you stand from their perspective. The masters may not be actually interested in finding fault with you because of their forgiveness and compassion. But you need to know whether you are moving in the right direction and making the right effort. Think of the masters with whom you are familiar either directly or through their teachings. Use your guru or his guru as your standard. When you put up this question, your heart knows the answers instantaneously.
6. One day I will be separated from all that I love dearly
This reflection is useful to cultivate detachment and free yourself from you entanglements and involvement with the material world. Attachment is one of the most difficult obstacles on the path. It is not easy to overcome it, because it comes to you in many guises. You kill one of them and several others raise their hoods in its place. The world is a transient place. What we have today will not be there someday. Outwardly life may look routine and somewhat predictable, especially if you happen to be a monk living in a monastery. But none can foretell the sudden twists and turns of life. Although we develop attachment with many things in our lives, finally we can take nothing with us, except our deeds and a few strong memories. Yet we cling and crave for things. We live and act as if things will last forever. In spiritual life you have to be constantly aware of the transience of life and the emotional disturbances which may arise because of the attachment and the expectations we cultivate. This does not mean you have to live life pessimistically or with despair and dejection. You have to live with wisdom and awareness about the transience of life and accept things as they are, without subjecting yourself to emotional disturbances and personal suffering. If you focus on the transience of life and reflect upon it, it will help you cultivate dispassion, detachment and sameness towards the pairs of opposites. You will be eventually free from all bonds and entanglements and achieve liberation.
7. I create my experiences and I am responsible for my actions
This reflection puts you on the center stage of your life and gives you an opportunity to redeem yourself, not egoistically but responsibly, through your thoughts, actions and decisions. It makes you responsible and accountable for your actions and your experiences and look into yourself rather than at others for solutions to the problems in your life. It makes you independent, self-aware and responsive to the pain and suffering you experience when you make mistakes and go through the self-cleansing process. The law of karma is inexorable. We may temporarily rationalize our actions, but our karma will ultimately catch up with us and demands its price. We cannot escape from our past unless we know how to set it right and stop the roots of karma spreading further and deeper into our lives. Once we are born into this world, we have to face the consequences of our actions and decisions and accept the rewards and punishments that are part of the package. However hard you may try to resist the temptations of life, when you are in a seeking mode, you will continue to push the boundaries of your life, taking chances and finding opportunities, till you realize how your actions and habits are putting you in a bind and how you are the cause and effect of your experiences.
We are responsible for what happens to us here as well as hereafter. We may hold God and others responsible for our pain and suffering or our success and happiness, but what shapes them is the law of karma. You create your life largely through your deeds and misdeeds. You precipitate the reality of your life through your mental and physical actions. Even the so called fate is shaped largely by your past deeds. Others may play a role in your life. But they can do so only with your permission and your involvement. You attract them because of your past or present karma and you give them a chance to mess with your life.
When you are too deeply involved with the world, you may think that this is the only life you have got and the only chance to live happily and you may not concern yourself with the consequences of your actions beyond your death. But death is not the end of it all. There is life beyond death that stretches into eternity. When you leave this world, you carry the seed of your next life with you. If the seed is not of good quality, when it eventually germinates and becomes a tree, it will bear bitter fruit and becomes a source of unpleasantness for you and others. It is therefore necessary that you view life from a wider perspective, in the larger context of your eternal self and the consequences that may arise on account of your current actions and lifestyle, paying close attention to your habitual thought patterns and your dominant desires because they are the seeds of your future life and they prepare you for your next life.
Living with responsibility is an important step on the spiritual path. Learning from your experience and using it to perfect yourself is another one. Accepting your pain, probing its causes within yourself gives you an opportunity to locate its source and find some lasting remedies. Look at every experience in your life as a chain of events that start from somewhere deep within your consciousness, either as a desire or as a thought, and culminate into a reality. Locate that original cause, if it possible, through regression or meditation, to understand how your own thoughts, desires and actions precipitate your life’s experiences and give rise to different mental states. Once you realize your responsibility and your involvement in your life’s chain of events, you will live and act more responsibly and sensitively, with compassion for yourself and others whom you might have dragged into the circle of your life through your thoughts and actions.
8. Am I doing the right things?
This is an extension of the previous thought process. On the spiritual path you have to evaluate your actions constantly to know whether you are making the right decisions and progressing in the right direction. There are no certainties on the spiritual path. You cannot entirely bank upon other people’s accounts and experiences. What worked for them may not work for you. Eventually you have to find your own path that leads to stability and inner balance. Walking on the spiritual path is like ascending a steep incline. When you make mistakes, you will slip and fall, sometimes all the way down to the starting point. Staying on the right course, performing right actions, analyzing them carefully and avoiding the mistakes and pitfalls, is therefore crucial. It is however not as easy as it seems because it is not always possible to know what is right and what is wrong in a given situation. Our judgments and morals are relative because our consciousness is clouded by ignorance and attachments. We cannot therefore not rely upon our judgment alone entirely to know the right from the wrong. Sometimes we may have to look for answers in the scriptures or in the teachings of our wise masters. We may also seek the counsel of others who are on the path or who are more experienced than us.
It is true that on the spiritual path you should not perform actions with a desire to be right or correct. You should not bring your ego into the evaluation process. The ego wants to be right and it does so for different reasons, as a part of its self-promoting and self-seeking behavior to gain something, win the approval of others or seek the attention of the world. The ego wants to be right at any cost and if necessary by rationalizing its actions. But as a spiritual person you should not let your ego rear its head. You should not allow yourself to feel concerned about the outcome of your actions or the desire to be always right. So it necessary that when you analyze your actions, you remain detached and in control of your ego. Evaluate them with detachment, as a corrective process, to move in the right direction, without judging your actions and treating your successes and failures with equanimity.
9. Am I comfortable with my emptiness?
In worldly life we are comfortable with completeness, with the sense of perfection and with an identity of being someone, who has a name, status and a distinct image. We usually try to increase our value and our esteem in society by accumulating wealth, power and prestige. We like to be praised appreciated. We like to have some weight in society so that we can extend our authority and influence upon people and get things done. We are afraid of being lonely or empty or the feeling of being nothing because we do not want to be treated as failures. Our society does not forgive those who lag behind. It does not forgive those who give up and who leave the ring. It promotes individuality and upholds those who prove their worth through sheer determination and hard work. We admire winners. We worship them. We love to fill our lives with color and action. As a result we become competitive and overly active, and fill our lives and our minds with the excess clutter, hoping that it would eventually compensate for our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. The truth is, however hard you may try, what you accomplish in your worldly life will not fill the emptiness and the craving that exists in you. Whatever may be your level of accomplishment, your craving for things never ceases. You may silence it temporarily with things, but not permanently. What you pour into it through your physical and mental effort will only intensify your craving even more. Your material possessions and your accomplishments do not cure your insecurity and your feelings of helplessness against the uncertainties and unpredictability of life. The solution therefore does not lie in filling your emptiness with material things or escaping from it through frivolous activity, but accepting it and embracing it. It is possible only when you shift your focus from having to being and by gradually withdrawing from the clutter of life. You have to empty all that from your consciousness which creates and perpetuates your hunger and thirst for things.
When you become reflective, the first thing that strikes you most about your life is the emptiness and the meaninglessness of it all. There is no apparent reason why we are here and why we have to do what we usually do to keep ourselves active, busy, successful, attractive, acceptable, friendly, useful, rich, famous, successful or simply human. Such awareness would either drive you crazy or push you gradually into depths of despair, as it did in case of the Buddha, and into the depths of your own consciousness to understand what life is all about and how may deal with it. The layers of consciousness, awareness, desires, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, judgment and all the learning and conditioning to which you were subject from the day you were born, actually stand between you and your liberation. The knowledge and awareness, the intellect and the reasoning power, which you thought were hugely responsible for your success in the worldly life, now actually become major problems in your search for liberation. You can resolve them only by becoming empty through a long and arduous process of unlearning and unconditioning your mind and body and freeing them from the shackles of authority and conformity.
In worldly life your success is measured by your achievements and your accumulation of material things. In spiritual life your progress is measured by the things you leave behind and the void that you experience within. In material life you aim to achieve success through goal oriented actions. In spiritual life you set aside all seeking and striving and lead an aimless, effortless and unencumbered life. In material life you seek people and relationships as a part of your self-preservation instinct. In spiritual life you shun the company of people and live in seclusion to understand the meaninglessness and the purposelessness of seeking and striving lifestyle. Since the two worlds are so different, when you withdraw from the worldly life and turn to spiritualism, you may experience a great void and a great resistance. This reflection helps you probe your own consciousness to understand how comfortable you are with your new way of life and with the transformation that you are working on. If you are really unhappy, it also gives you an opportunity to understand the underlying causes and address them.
10. Have I attained the superior wisdom that will set me free?
The ultimate purpose of spiritual practice is to gain right knowledge so that you will overcome your ignorance and delusion and realize who you truly are. By gaining right knowledge you will also be able to discern truth from falsehood and live life the right way, without making costly mistakes that may lead to unhappy karmic consequences. But at what stage will you know that you attained the right knowledge? How do you know that you have gained the right knowledge and attained perfection on the path? There are no hard and fast answers for this. Only you will know, when and if it happens. Perhaps you may also seek the help of the masters who have treaded the path before you and who have the ability to know your situation intuitively or who can provide you an insight into your behavior through sheer power of observation. This reflection helps you in two ways, one is by letting you know where you stand on the path and secondly by enabling you to refocus your mind on your path in case you have been distracted by some powerful events in your life. In spiritual life as in material life, sometimes you may find yourself moving in circles, indulging in frivolous activities and losing sight of the very purpose for which you began your journey. With the help of this reflection, you can reset your mind and refocus on your path. Equally important is what knowledge and wisdom you seek on the path. Our scriptures recognize two types of knowledge, outer knowledge and inner knowledge. Outer knowledge is the knowledge of the world and the inner knowledge is the knowledge of the self. The first one is acquired through the senses and the study of the world. The second one not acquired because it cannot be pursued actively. It arises when the mind is stable, the desires are annihilated and the senses are asleep. There is also another classification mentioned by the scriptures, the lower knowledge and the higher knowledge. Lower knowledge comes from the study of scriptures and the experience of others and higher knowledge arises in the depths of one’s own consciousness, in moments of profound silence after years of practice, through purification, attentive observation and self-sacrifice. The only test of true knowledge is whether it has set you free and created the right awareness in you.
If you are committed to becoming a spiritual person and want to lead an intensely spiritual life, you can use these ten reflections to cultivate the right attitude and remain focused on your practice. As we have discussed earlier, spiritual life is an uphill battle, where you are tested constantly by your primitive instincts, selfish desires, habitual thought patterns and your intrinsic desire for self-preservation. These ten great reflections are very helpful to remain balanced and focused.
Suggestions for Further Reading
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- How to Cultivate Mindful Awareness
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- How Karma Applies to Animals?
- The Truth About You and Your Self-image
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- The Soul, The Ego and The Process of Liberation
- Spirituality - The Power of True Surrender
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- Why do we want our World to End?
- Why is Life Such a Struggle?
- What is Intelligence? A Definition of Intelligence.
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Introduction to Hinduism
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
The Chandogya Upanishad