I started out writing this article thinking in terms of obstacles to progress on the spiritual path, but fairly quickly it turned into an article about the attributes necessary for spiritual progress.
We all start out in life with the seeds of these attributes in us, but along the way some may become dormant. As the saying goes “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Being dormant, they have not disappeared, only unused. This means that they can be recovered at any time once we become aware of their value to us, not just for spiritual growth but for every aspect of our lives.
These qualities are used and developed in daily life and are then available to us for use on our spiritual search.
The dictionary definition for courage is:
1. the ability to do something that frightens one;
2. strength in the face of pain or grief: he fought his illness with great courage.
You’ve heard the phrase “to have the courage of one’s convictions” -to act on one’s beliefs/values despite danger or disapproval.
Have you developed the strength to act on what you value despite disapproval? Another way of saying this is “have you become your own person?” While becoming “your own person” is a characteristic of being a mature human being and doesn’t of itself necessarily lead to spiritual seeking, it is a necessary attribute for successful spiritual progress.
It’s pretty much guaranteed that if you decide to seriously follow your spiritual path that you will be met with disapproval, ridicule, dismissiveness, or even downright horror. The reason for this is that many do not have the calling to this themselves (at least, at the time you are starting out), and so it looks strange and unnecessary to them. There is a fair chance that the path that calls you is different from those around you and may look to them like you have become involved in a dangerous cult or strange activity.
Courage is necessary in order to get over this hurdle.
Courage is necessary, not only to deal with external pressures but along the way you’ll be met with situations where you need to face inner changes, not knowing where they are taking you. It may be that you are faced with finding that the group or teacher you have long been associated with are no longer helpful to you or doubts have arisen. It takes courage to move on.
It may be that you feel you are driving yourself to a nervous breakdown by continuing with your practises, since you are noticing that life no longer makes sense to you according to your old ideas or what is commonly accepted.
We all have minds. We need to understand what is going on and we have our interpretations of life and the world. This is an ongoing project for everyone, constantly interpreting and re-interpreting and fitting new experiences and ideas into what we already feel we know. or what we have settled for.
When we first come across spiritual teachings we usually find them incomprehensible or disturbing. At this point many simply dismiss them but there are those whose interest is piqued by them, especially if someone feels that there is something missing in their understanding or quality of life or that they are missing out on some very important aspect of life, they may be drawn to find out more along this line.
On first coming across statements or questions such as: “Who am I?” “you own your actions but not the results of them”, “You never learn the answer; you can only become the answer.” “life is suffering and suffering is caused by craving and aversion”, “there is only this”, “not my will but Thy Will be done,” we are bound to be perplexed as we do not have a category for interpreting them in our minds. Ideas and experiences are interpreted in relation to what ideas and interpretations we already have in our minds.
Over time, through reading spiritual books, listening to spiritual teachers and so on, a category of knowledge about the spiritual path develops in our minds. At first everything goes in, and what is retained is a conglomeration of discrete ideas. These ideas then begin to support or contradict each other – we wonder how this teaching relates to another by a different teacher and so on. It is a phase of active accumulation and gradual sorting of ideas.
Now there is a new category in the mind which has an alternative way to look at life as opposed to the common beliefs and ideas of our culture.
Since spiritual teachings are obviously not necessary for daily survival, one at some point comes to realise that this kind of knowledge has a purpose other than daily survival. It dawns on us what the goal of spiritual teachings are about- what The Buddha termed as “the end of suffering,” or returning to our true nature as phrased in other teachings.
From this point on we are likely to read this literature with a different mind set, understanding the goal and the methods suggested by the various strands of The Perennial Wisdom.
Along the way there is regular re-interpretation of ideas as we gain a better understanding and greater focus on what we are trying to achieve.
Question everything! Don’t take anyone else’s word for it. Test out ideas in your own experience and in relation to what you already think. If you believe something, feel attached to some belief, ask yourself where does that belief come from and is it valid in your own experience.
For instance; if you believe (feel) that being wealthy will make you happy, check for evidence of this in the world. Look at your own life to see what beliefs or ideas have you founded your life on. Is it working for you? If not, then why not?
Have you any assumptions about what happens after death? What are you ideas about death, if indeed you have been willing to look at such a radical question? And if you have avoided looking at this question, why? What belief or assumption or fear prevents you from it?
The inclination of the human mind is to settle for beliefs and to avoid looking at what is uncomfortable or in conflict with already held beliefs. This is much easier than questioning yourself but in settling for this attitude you are doomed to continue living the life you have been living up to this. Many, it seems are content with this but for one who is driven by the desire for profound inner change, self-questioning is necessary.
The Christian tradition has many descriptions of “periods of aridity” documented by the lives of the saints, as do all the main traditions. These are periods when, despite much practise and longing for God, and an end to the search, there appears to be nothing happening. In these periods we are bound to doubt the efficacy of our practise. There is the danger of giving up, or walking away from the search in these periods, especially if we have not heard of this phenomenon as being part of the path.
Many wonder along the way why it is taking so long, what they are doing wrong and so on. The thing is, fruition of this path is not in our hands. All we can do is to do what we can on our end and hope for fruition. But, we have to do what we can on our end. Jesus said “seek and you shall find”. The various teachings have said the same thing as Jesus and produced the desired result for many, so don’t give up. There is light at the end of the tunnel but the tunnel may take longer to navigate that you would like.
The goal of spiritual seeking is not like any other kind of goal we have in life. It’s not something we can aim for directly, knowing how we are progressing along the way. This is a path of losing what is not true, a backing away from the conditioning and wrong assumptions we have picked up in the world in favour of moving towards what is real within ourselves. The movement towards what is real is facilitated by spiritual teachings and practises, which are always pointing us towards our inner selves, our True Nature.
One last attribute I am going to mention is trust, trust in yourSelf, in God, in the teachings. Trust doesn’t mean you can guarantee a result but acting as if you trust this path and this search and the teachings ( guidance) that you come upon, certainly helps. It allows you to live the spiritual life wholeheartedly, and this facilitates the desired inner transformation.