The Difficulties of Spiritual Life

Spiritual Practice

by Jayaram V

From the time you are born and until you die, you are never separate from the world. Only a few people can turn away from it and become interested in the deeper world within. Of them, still fewer people succeed in going to the end. Surely, a lot of people turn to spiritual life, but cannot go far due to their interests, preoccupations, fears, obligations and responsibilities. Even if you want to renounce the world, it will not let you go easily because the world lives in you as your memory and accumulated, mental knowledge.

Materialism is not a safe option either. Yet, people spend their whole lives in its pursuit. When you see a 80 year old expert speaking anxiously about the stock market trends or amassing wealth at the expense of others, you may wonder why he has to do it at that age and why he cannot spend his time doing something more worthwhile.  When you purse materialism, you open yourself to numerous risks and become vulnerable to many threats. It may enhance your self-worth, but may leave you with moral confusion and persistent emotional instability. However, the problems of materialism may not be enough for people to turn to spirituality. Many Hippies from the West tried it in the past, but with limited results. Many people spend agonizing hours, trying to solve their worldly problems, but do not think of retiring from the world or renouncing their material pursuits.

From a worldly perspective, while materialism seem to cause many problems, spiritual life seems to be even more problematic as it does not offer any guarantees or quick solutions. People go to spiritual people for solutions to their worldly problems, but do not become spiritual. They may become interested in spirituality, but it is mainly due to their interest in worldly life. Therefore, you may see people dabble with spirituality, but without giving up anything. It is what we call pseudo spiritualism. You will find a lot of them, even in the vicinity of prominent spiritual teachers, trying to profit from their relationship or to secure a few ego coins.

Spiritual life demands a lot of discipline, prior preparation and conditioning. Even the toughest minds can fail on the path. As the Vedas affirm, many lifetimes are needed before a person overcomes his delusion and becomes interested in the idea of liberation. Perhaps many more are further required before he becomes stabilized on the path. However, having even a little inclination for spiritual life is more important than having none at all. You should appreciate anyone who turns to spirituality even for superfluous reasons, because it is just a beginning. It is how many people begin their journey and why some spiritual masters prefer to perform magic and miracles to attract attention.

The phrase, "spiritual life," is used here to denote a way of life in which you acknowledge that you are neither your mind nor body but the eternal Self and live accordingly, performing your actions and pursuing your goals for your liberation, or for the sake of your Self. For some, spiritualism means being interested in ghosts, mediums, séances, sorcery, 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.

There are many reasons why people become interested in the spiritual aspects of life. They are not common to all. However, there are a few external and internal factors which are more common and universally found. Suffering is one of them, which is inherent to mortal life, and almost inseparable from it. Suffering is certainly a major transformative factor, which is described in many traditions as the gift from God. It is said that when God loves you, he gives you suffering so that you can improve yourself and prepare for your liberation. It is through suffering that many people come to the realization that there is something deeper and more important to life than mere worldly pursuits. Suffering also arises from moral dilemmas and deep remorse, as it happened in case of Arjuna or Ashoka, which can be profoundly transformative.

Suffering forces people to rethink about themselves and their lives. However, it is doubtful whether by itself suffering can prompt people to become spiritual. If it is so, every suffering soul upon earth would have turned to asceticism and practiced renunciation. You can see that in spite of too much suffering, people still stick on to their old ways of living and thinking. Some even pursue wrong and wicked paths and degrade themselves. Suffering opens the mind of people who are receptive to the idea of liberation, but creates negativity in others who cannot overcome their desires and attachments. Although the world is not a very comforting place, it seems to offer such lost souls more comfort than the idea of liberation. Therefore, you will find many people who prefer going with the known, rather than the unknown. Some try to be both spiritual and worldly at the same time. As you will see later, however, it is not a bad practice at all.

People do not easily resort to spirituality because it is part of Nature’s program. Nature wants all beings to abide by its terms rather than go against them. Hence, it throws up numerous challenges to those who want to give up worldly life and pursue a life of renunciation and liberation. If worldly life is uncertain, spiritual life is even more uncertain and ambiguous. It offers no guarantees and certainties, nor any rewards. It is an uncharted life with no path, except the one you make. You do not know whether your methods work, whether your teacher is an adept, whether you will reach the chosen goals, and whether you are making progress. You have to deal with a lot of resistance both from within and from the word outside, make a number of sacrifices and forgo many comforts, which will generate a lot of pain and anxiety. Unless you are totally disgusted with your current life and feel unstoppable restlessness (samvega), you will not think of alternatives and spiritual solutions. The following are a few additional problems associated with spiritual life which make it  harder to pursue.

1. Spiritual life is a lonely life, where you cannot actively seek any friendship or relationship even with God or your guru. You have to renounce all relationships and remain by yourself. You must be at peace with your loneliness and aloneness, which is not possible for many.

2. On the path you have to transcend your notion of success and failure and control your emotions and habitual reactions to what life delivers to you as part of your fate or karma.

3. In spiritual life you have to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty without losing your balance or mental peace. Since your experiences happen mostly in your subtle mind you cannot be sure whether you are progressing on the path and whether your experiences are authentic. The uncertainty can discourage many people for persevering and continuing.

4. Spiritual life demands that you have to let go of taking things into your hands or controlling situations and circumstances. If you are a perfectionist or a control freak, you will have a lot of trouble not reacting or responding to situations that may in normal life require urgent and immediate action. For example, what will you do when you are hit by a swarm of mosquitoes and they start biting you, or suddenly someone starts disturbing you without provocation?

5. As a spiritual person you have to outgrow your dependence upon others for approval, and acceptance. You cannot seek appreciation, confirmation, recognition, or support from others, and you must be willing to perform actions without desires and without worrying about their consequences.

6. In spiritual life you cannot criticize anyone, disturb anyone or influence anyone. You have to remain a silent witness to all that happens without becoming involved and without reacting or responding. For anyone, it is very difficult to practice indifference, disinterest, and apathy amidst threats, attractions and instigations.

7. As a spiritual person, you cannot defend yourself, prove yourself, or have any desire or inclination to promote yourself or your interests. You have to be equal to both fame and blame, keeping your emotions under strict control. For ordinary people it is difficult to live such a life of self-negation, equanimity and sameness, ignoring their sensitivity and sense of justice.

8. Spiritual life can be a delusional trap. If you are not clear about your purpose, you may delude yourself into spiritual activity without required commitment and spend your whole life indulging in spirituality for worldly ends. It means you draw yourself further into even a greater delusion than worldly people who have no illusions about their spirituality.

9. Spiritual life is neither for the timid nor for the weak hearted since it can bring out the worst fears and a lot of emotional turmoil, which is difficult to manage. In the early stages, it throws up all your negativity, hidden fears, doubts, and concerns, which can be very unsettling. Many people fall sick or lose their mental peace, if they do not prepare adequately or stay clean.

10. Spiritual people may have to deal with a lot of public scrutiny, derision, doubt, and ridicule. The attention itself can be unnerving to the initiates. No one truly appreciates you or feel comfortable with you. If your family or friends perceive that you are different from them and you have different aims which they cannot fully understand, they may become suspicious and distrustful of your actions. Some may even think that you have lost your mind and need to be avoided.

From Nature's perspective, every spiritual aspirant is a mutant, who needs to be tested in the playground of life before its features can be assimilated into its design for further evolution or discarded as failure. The world appreciates the idea of spirituality, but is not yet fully ready to accept spiritual people without conditions and skepticism. Ask people to come and join you in your spiritual journey, and they may look at you as if you are stuck with a serious disease, unless you have somehow managed to acquire a large following of faithful followers and seem to wield influence from which they can draw personal benefits. Tell the world that you are a spiritual person, and the world will either draw a circle around you and treat you like a venerable saint, or build a wall of indifference around you and keep you isolated forever.

Spiritual life is not necessary for your survival upon earth. However, you are never complete without it. Hinduism does not discourage you from pursuing materialistic goals. It cautions us against unchecked pursuit of material goals or lack of balance and moderation. It is why we have four chief aims of human life (purusharthas) not one. The ultimate aim of human life is liberation (moksha). Hence, whatever profession you may choose in your life and whatever lifestyle, spirituality is important. You cannot ignore it or delay it. It is better to be spiritual and pursue materialism rather than following its opposite.

Part 2: How to Prepare for the Difficulties of Spiritual Life


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