How To Remain Steadfast on the Spiritual Path

Devotion and Spirituality

by Jayaram V

Very few people are interested in a subject like spiritual life and much fewer would be willing to spend the rest of their lives in its pursuit. Probably if this discussion is about dating or attracting the opposite sex, or about ghosts and witches, it would receive more attention and interest rather than a subject like spiritualism. Do you know what spiritual books and articles receive wider attention?

Books on tantra and the so called spiritual sex. Do you know what is the most widely read Indian scripture in the world? It is not the Yogasutra but the Kamasutra. Do you know why some women fall into the trap of bogus gurus and become victims of their sexual oppression? Because they are excited about the prospects of leading spiritual lives but are ill equipped for it. They misunderstand their intense passion and devotion for God as spiritual yearning or join an ashram because they are bored with their routine lives.

Not all people are interested in spiritual life or ready for it. Those who are interested in it, may feel hesitant because they are not sure what is going to happen and whether they have the ability to cope with the problems and distractions that may arise on the path. The experiences one undergoes during spiritual journey are mostly personal in nature and what happens in case of one individual need not necessarily happen in the case of others. Besides, spiritual life offers many challenges, but no real solace for those who look to others for approval, acceptance, appreciation and social recognition. If you believe that you have deep and genuine spiritual yearning, please examine your motives. Are you interested in spiritual life because you have a genuine aspiration to know who you are or because you are frustrated with your current life and want to escape from it through the spiritual channel?

Spiritual life is a life of hardship. It does not offer you early rewards. It does not promise you happiness, but depression and possible setbacks. The whole world conspires to go against you as you begin your spiritual journey. There are hardly any incentives for people to spend the rest of their lives contemplating upon the deeper aspects of life. Spiritual life is all about minimizing and negating yourself and letting go of your self-interest and your personal comforts. You have to make a number of sacrifices, without expecting any appreciation or acknowledgement in return. You have to forego many things that you dearly love in life, in order to gain something in the end which no one is ever able to explain clearly. You have to destroy a great deal of your personal identity in order to recreate and renew yourself, detaching yourself from the illusion that you call your life. You need a major shift in your thinking and attitude towards success and failure, because what you consider as success in the real life may be actually a failure in the spiritual realm and vice versa.

Spiritual life is so difficult that many people resort to self-deceptive behavior to cope with it. They indulge in the illusion of spiritual activity, organizing events and promoting their gurus and religious beliefs, instead of focusing on the salvation which should be their main purpose. They delude themselves into believing that they have become spiritual, whereas in reality they are anything but spiritual. What they do in the name of spiritual activity is promoting themselves or the organizations they represent so that they can safely distract themselves from the main task, which is to cultivate virtues, purify their minds and bodies and work for their salvation. If you really want to know how spiritual people really are in the present day world, watch the top echelons of any spiritual or religious organization and see how they compete with each other for favors and attention from their higherups. Most spiritual gurus have to deal with the petty squabbles and internal politics of their close followers. Perhaps that was how the early followers of the Buddha or Zoroaster or Jesus might have also behaved because personal jealousies are hard to overcome even by spiritual people. It is human nature to compete and call attention to oneself. If you want to punish people, who are dying to get your attention, just ignore them and see what happens.

No one truly appreciates you, if you tell your friends and family that you are drawn to spiritual life and want to renounce the world. First, your parents will be aghast. They will presume that you have either lost your head or joined a cult and got brain washed. Your friends may think that you have gone crazy and spend a few days gossiping behind your back about you and the signs of early insanity them might have noticed in your behavior. Your boyfriend, if you have one, most likely will start looking for good excuses to avoid your company or run away from you. It is life. It is how life rewards you when you embark upon a difficult journey with good intentions. It is how society treats you if you want to deviate from the socially approved behavior. In the course of your life, you have to learn to accept people for what they are, this worldly. It is how the world tends to protect itself from deviants and social aberrations like you. From Nature's perspective, every spiritual aspirant is a mutation, who needs to be tested in the crucible of life before it can put its stamp of approval upon him. Ask people to come and join you in your spiritual journey and they will look at you as if you are stuck with leprosy. Tell the world that you are a spiritual person and the world will either draw a circle around you and treat your like a special person or build a wall of indifference around you and keep you isolated forever. And if you talk too much and describe yourself as the son of God or a rightful heir to throne of Indra in the heavens, mostly likely you will be crucified or burnt alive or sent to the nearest mental hospital. Of course, there is also a high probability of people falling at your feet and kissing your feet and ankles, if you can convince them that you can talk to God or fly in the air or heal the sick. May be some pretence on the part of spiritual gurus is perfectly justified, when we think of its ability to attract people to the spiritual side.

There is no doubt that spiritual life is not for the timid or the weak hearted. It is neither for the sick nor for the materially ambitious and covetous. You need a lot of courage and conviction to follow the spiritual percepts enshrined in our scriptures, especially if you happen to be young and in the prime of your life. Spiritual life is not absolutely necessary for your survival upon earth. But, you are never complete without it. You will not experience true joy and happiness or peace and stability, if you focus your energies entirely upon the material aspects of life. Materialism is good for us in a limited way. It is necessary to satisfy some of our material needs, keep the wheels of life and society running and fulfill our individual and family responsibilities. But if you get involved with the material world too deeply, you may hurt yourself in many ways, both by your actions and those of others.

In the present day world it is all the more difficult to tread the spiritual path. The phrase, "spiritual life," is used here to denote a way of life in which you live not for yourself but for the sake of the spirit or the self that is hidden in you, identifying yourself completely with it. This is a limited definition indeed. Your definition of spiritualism may not be the same as the one described here. For some, spiritualism means being interested in ghosts, medium ships, séances and so on. Here it is used to denote a way of life, in which the aim is to live for the sake of your soul and work for its liberation. Whatever may be your approach and your understanding, in your heart you know that spiritual life is different from the materialistic life and that to live it you need a different mindset and a lot of preparation. If you are one of those who are looking for some encouragement on the path and remain focused on your tasks, the following suggestions are useful to you.

Think of death

Whether we accept it or not, we are life oriented. Although we are well aware of our vulnerabilities and the risks that we face in our lives, we show a great passion for life. Although life is full of setbacks and suffering, we do not lose faith in our ability to deal with them and emerge successfully in the end. Our self-preservation instinct is so powerful that when faced with threats we always bring out our best. In the classical system of yoga, this inherent quality of ours is termed as the great longing for life (abhinivesa). We know with certainty that someday death will catch up with us. But we ignore it and keep looking for opportunities to improve our chances of survival and success. We also do not want to live merely. We want to live forever. We have the ability to live forever, but only through spiritual means. But generally it is not how many people want to live forever. They want to perpetuate themselves physically and mentally. They want to somehow retain their youthful looks and keep themselves happy and life oriented.

By nature we avoid focusing on death. We do not want think about it because there is no real joy or comfort in thinking about it and there is no reason why we need to worry about it. Dying is a very painful and dreadful process. It evokes in us disturbing and agonizing reactions. People take years to recover from the trauma of losing their near and dear. So it is natural that we will think of anything but death. In fact, if you begin to think about death frequently, with no particular reason, you may have to seek medical help, because it is not normal and it is also indicative of some serious mental problem.

But on the spiritual path, you need to follow a different approach. You have to think about death seriously and understand its implications because the ultimate purpose of your spiritual practice is to overcome death by contemplating upon how and why you are subject to the agony of death and what remedies you have to escape from it. When you contemplate upon death and how it consumes our lives, you will realize the futility and meaninglessness of our mortal existence. You will realize how delusional most of our striving and craving for things that are in themselves have no real value. The things in which you take pride and the things that you value most, lose their appeal and influence upon you. Through the contemplation upon death, you become fearless, overcome your attachment for material things and your passion for life. You will see your life in a wider context, and your current life as an opportunity to resolve the problem of death once and for all.

Extend your vision

Spiritual life requires that you acknowledge yourself as the spirit or self or the soul. The soul is eternal, without a beginning and an end. So when you are interested in spiritual life, you have to change your thinking and your approach to everything. You have to view everything in a larger context or a wider perspective. You will not only focus on what is happening right now or what may happen in your life, but also what may happen much later, when you exist no more in your present state. When you interpret the events in your life in a wider time frame, many issues that normally bother you cease to weigh upon your mind. You will also overcome many fears and anxieties that we usually experience when we consider ourselves as mere physical beings.

Accept the impermanence of the world

We are temporary. Our identity, possessions, achievements, relationships, gains and losses, all are temporary. Yet, we spend whole lifetimes trying to make things permanent or hold on to them forever. We want to be in control of everything and expect the world to be as per our wishes. When we live with such expectations, we are bound to feel disappointed.

The problem is not that we do not know about the temporariness of our existence. We just ignore it and go about living. Such an attitude is acceptable if you are deeply engaged in the material aspects of life. Your desire for permanence in the things you see and hold is yout hidden longing for eternity, which is the nature of your soul.

So what happens when you begin to appreciate the fragile nature of our lives? First, we learn to value things. We appreciate whatever that becomes part of our lives. We live with a sense of hope when things go wrong, because know that everything eventually change. We develop respect for things and become more sensitive to people and situations as we know that time never returns to recreate the same experiences and situations once again, and develop inner balance and cope with the ups and downs in our lives with more stability and equanimity. Finally, we tone down our expectations from people and relationships as we know that our minds are fickle and our relationships are but fragile.

Identify yourself with your inmost self

Our fixation with our bodies is much deeper than we really think. If you have any doubt, just watch the local television channels for an hour and you will see how constantly you get to watch programs and advertisements on health, food, appearance, weightless, exercise, fitness, beauty creams, cosmetics, clothes, sports and sex. Whether we are aware or not, consciously and subconsciously we identify ourselves with our bodies. We consider our bodies as our primary domains and wherever we go, our identity goes there. The distinction between you and others is important. Your identification with your mind and body is also essential for your survival and personal well being. But the attachment and identification come with a price. If you think you are just the mind and the body, as some materialistic sects of ancient India believed, you are bound to feel insecure and disappointed at some stage. We all cope with the aging process to a great extent. But if you believe that there is nothing else to the human personality beyond the physical or mental self, you will feel increasingly anxious about death and your survival as you reach the end of your life.

Spend the next few days constantly reminding yourself that you are neither the mind and the body, but the formless, ethereal self, residing in the body and interacting with the whole wide world through the mind and the senses. Become fixed in that notion and observe your physical self, as if you are witnessing a different person. It will be difficult to do in the initial stages, but as time goes by you become accustomed to the notion and you will experience a new awareness and depth of your consciousness, which is not easily accessible to those who identify themselves with their bodies.

Make God the object of your devotion and contemplation

People usually think of God on occasions, especially when they need something, when they are in trouble, when they are not sure of themselves or when they are in a house of God or a sacred place. We also approach God with many preconceived notions and expectations. We give Him names and try to relate with Him through those names. It is also true that in times of frustration we wonder whether God exists at all and question Him and His involvement in our lives with doubt and even derision. No one knows for sure why and when God will respond to you. But in every scripture, we are promised that He will respond to every sincere request and earnest prayers we send out to Him.

It is difficult to define God and much more difficult to relate with Him all the time. But if you want to lead a spiritual life, you have to acknowledge the presence of God in every aspect of your life and think of Him constantly. In the initial phases, make sure that you remember Him at least few times a day. Read spiritual books, visit the places where God is usually worshipped and think of Him before you begin any important task. Pray to Him as frequently as possible everyday. Keep your faith even if your prayers are not answered immediately. As the time goes by, you can learn to remember Him more frequently and make Him the central part of your awareness.

Cultivate the friendship of spiritual people

The best way to sustain your spiritual state of mind and remain firmly fixed on your spiritual goals is to remain in the company of people who have similar aims. When you interact with such people on a regular basis, you will be charged with positive vibrations and your resolve to continue your spiritual journey becomes firmer and stronger. Find people whose hearts are pure and whose minds are filled with the thoughts of God. Finding such people is in itself a great blessing. When you come into contact with them, use the opportunity to learn from them and share your experiences with them. People usually tend to cultivate the friendship of the rich and the powerful. But if you are spiritually inclined, look for people who have a spiritual bent of mind, irrespective of whether they are rich or poor.

If you do not find such people, do the following.

  • Spend your time reading books or watching videos and presentations that are useful to you in your practice.
  • Attend seminars and lectures delivered by people who are known for their wisdom and spiritual knowledge.
  • If there is nothing else to do, just listen to devotional music.
  • Visit a temple or a sacred place.
  • Remembering God is to be in the company of God. So spend some time praying or chanting.

Practice meditation

Meditation is the best way to curb the movements of your mind, understand your feelings and emotions and develop insight into various problems and aspects of life. A contemplative life is bound to make you more thoughtful and sensitive towards yourself and others. It makes you feel more responsible for your actions and the actions and attitude of those who are within the zone of your influence. Through meditation you also gain control over your thoughts and desires.

Practice self-discipline and self-control

Spiritual life is built on the foundation of virtue and morality. It is impossible to be spiritual, if you are not willing to discipline yourself and stay on the right side of things. If you are not determined to eliminate all the impurities from your mind and body through austerities and self-discipline, you may open yourself a number of temptations on the path and become vulnerable the negative forces and evil tendencies that exist in all of us, awaiting their time and opportunity. The question every person should answer before committing themselves to the path is whether they are ready for the arduous journey and whether they are willing to make necessary sacrifices. If one is not sure, one should rather take more time in preparing oneself through activities such as devotion and service, rather than taking initiation into the path.

Shun the company of worldly people

Yes, ignore them. Stay away from them and avoid their company to the extent possible. This seclusion is especially important and essential in the early stages of your practice. Otherwise you will be distracted and easily discouraged. Spiritual practices make your extra sensitive and emotionally vibrant and if your are not careful, very likely people being to weigh upon our mind and erode your stability and inner balance. So by all means, keep a mental distance from people, especially those who are outright ambitious, selfish, self-centered, violent, aggressive, too worldly and ruthless.

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