We all know from experience that we cannot be a better person, a more loving individual, let alone a fully realized being, simply by intention alone. Spiritual seeking is a commendable activity in and of itself; it brings many rewards such as greater clarity, peace of mind, and serenity, and keeps us from mindless and destructive pursuits. But spiritual seeking that is undisciplined and aimless will not bring any improvements to our condition, nor will it be truly rewarding.
Seeking and aspiration need to be guided in the right direction. We need to know where we are going, how to get there, and what the goal is. We need to know what Emerson called the "necessary truths." We need every helping hand we can get to guide us along the path, in whatever form it takes: a system, a yoga, a guru, or a teacher. There is a distance to be forded; there are many steps between fragmentation and unity, between the personal and impersonal, between egocentric being and cosmocentric being.
Stages on the Path to Enlightenment
Belief is one of the "helping hands"; so is conviction; so is aspiration; devotion to a guru or deity is yet another. All of these, however, when seen in the light of truth, are but stages on the path to enlightenment. "Whenever spiritual seeking becomes an all-absorbing passion of our soul," said Emerson, "we are inevitably released from all doctrine and creed-bound beliefs and are brought face to face with the great cosmic, universal, and all-abiding truth." He may have been speaking of a specific instant of enlightenment, but we can see this also as a perfect description of the gradual release of beliefs, dogmas, ideals, and laws on the path to Self-knowledge.
At the beginning of the path, we are subject to many external influences, such as the laws of nature and those of man; we cling to rituals, creeds, and opinion. As we move up and gain self-reliance (to use an Emersonian term) external influences lose their power over us, we become more universal -- we stand under a higher law and live according to universal principles. Still higher up, as we realize our true nature, we are released from all belief, all manmade laws, and all of nature's laws. Belief is replaced by complete knowing and understanding. A person who has reached this point understands (stands under) the One -- the One Law, the One Will -- or, in Emerson's words, the "all-abiding truth."
Many Methods & Paths Lead to Enlightenment
As we already know, there are many methods leading to perfection and many paths to enlightenment. On the surface they may seem quite disparate in form and method and terminology. Some rely on tradition with its ritual and devotional practices; others are more austere and rely on discipline and reason alone. Some emphasize renunciation and yet others seclusion. But as the paths ascend and reach the top of the mountain, they all merge and display their essential unity.
The goal is the same, only the semantics are different: Self-Realization, liberation, turiya, enlightenment, unity with the Godhead, merging into the infinite, or supraconsciousness. All these words describe the merging with the one reality. But they are just words and as such are inadequate in describing the undescribable, the unfathomable, the mysterious and unnameable One.
To this day there are thousands of monasteries and ashrams around the world where spiritual work is the order of the day -- a full-time job and an all-absorbing activity. These souls are on the fast track of spiritual enlightenment. As householders, we cannot emulate their abandonment of all worldly concerns. On the contrary, we find ourselves in the circumstances that are most propitious for our own spiritual development, for the lawful unfolding of our soul. Our duties are here, wherever we find ourselves. We need not abandon them in order to pursue the path of enlightenment. The way of the householder is in the world and through the world, through our particular functions, natures, and talents.
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Rather than giving up the world, we seek to integrate our ordinary personality with our soul nature. As householders, we explore, express, and fulfill our purpose here. By doing our duty perfectly, and by perfecting our instrument, we grow in wisdom and insight, and by putting these into practice, we naturally ascend the path to Self-knowledge.
We need not change our lives or interrupt the lives of those around us. Positive changes will simply occur as a result of our growth and understanding. All we need to do is shift the focus of our attention from material reality to spiritual reality, from undue concerns with matter to the love of truth. The change takes place in the mind and in the consciousness.
The right path to follow for each one of us is the one that does not create conflict between our external life and our dedication to the "examined life." These two must be compatible, or else we will abandon the quest within a very brief time. We need not give up the comforts and joys of life, but we will realize that simplicity and even a measure of austerity will contribute to harmony and serenity.
Begin Here and Now
In order to start on any journey, we have to begin where we are and we have to have a means of journeying -- a map, a vehicle, and fuel. We also have to have a goal in mind as well as a sense of direction. On the spiritual journey, "where we are" is the given facts -- our lot in life, our present state of consciousness, the condition of our instrument. All these together are determined by past action and comprise our dharma -- our duty in life -- which is the perfect place to begin.
The "map" and "vehicle" are our chosen means: the teaching or method suited to our temperament and our way of life. The "fuel" is our desire for knowledge, our aspiration, and our innate love of truth, as well as the spiritual force known in the East as tapas. The "sense of direction" is the conviction, certainty, and knowledge of the aim we need on the path, without which we get lost. By maintaining a strong sense of direction, our spiritual path, which is also our dharma, becomes easy. The "goal" is the perfection of our true potential -- both in life and in Spirit. The ultimate goal is Self-Realization.
Let us look at the "map" and "vehicle" -- a specific means or system of Self-Realization. We are looking for a system that is in harmony with modern life and will bring about an integration of our entire being and does not require extreme practices. The threefold path or the way of action, devotion, and knowledge, also known as trimarga (from tri, "three," and marga, "path"), fulfills these requirements. It is a synthesis of three different paths or yogas that in the past were practiced separately and according to caste.
Three Different Paths or Yogas
Karma yoga is the path by which union with God is achieved through action; bhakti yoga brings about union with God through love and devotion; in jnana yoga, union with God is achieved through wisdom. Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda were both followers and exponents of this threefold path of dedicated action, love, and wisdom as expounded in the Bhagavad Gita -- the "Holy Song."
Through karma yoga (from the root kri, "to act"), the path of selfless dedicated action, we surrender and dedicate all actions to the Supreme Self and to the Self in all. Through inner renunciation, we gain equanimity; as we give up all claims to deeds, persons, and things. We rise above duality of pleasure/pain, like/dislike, love/hate, good/bad, elation/despair. Through attention in action and purity of thought, we free ourselves of past impressions, attachments, and impurities and create no further karma. Through this purification and concentration, we develop our higher Will. The highest aim of karma yoga is to attain unity of the individual soul with the Divine Will.
Through bhakti yoga (from bhaj, "to love"), the way of devotion to a deity or contemplation of the universal Self, we destroy the effects of karma - egotism and clinging to life. We increase devotion and love of truth through good company, chanting, remembering the Paramatman, and meditating on the divine qualities. The highest aim of bhakti yoga is Divine love.
Through jnana yoga (from jna, "to know") and the practice of purification, concentration, and inquiry into the God within, we develop discrimination and remove ignorance. Through the study of the scriptures and metaphysics and through reflection and meditation on Paramatman, we aim to know, see, and embody the divine. Realization is attained through Divine Wisdom and through the union of Atman with Paramatman. The highest aim of jnana yoga is to become the divine -- sat-chit-ananda.
In more practical terms, through selfless, neutral action we are released from bondage of past and present deeds and gain equanimity and harmony in all our endeavors. Through devotion to the One Self, we are released from the petty concerns of ego, and we develop our higher emotions, creative imagination, and love of truth, beauty, and the good. Through discrimination we are released from ignorance and gain higher wisdom, higher reason, and inner vision -- the very faculties by which we know ourselves and the universal Self. We develop what are known as the "Six Excellences": tranquillity, control of the senses, renunciation, endurance, concentration, and yearning for liberation.
All three paths are methods of liberation from ignorance and duality, and all three paths aim at union of the individual Self with universal Self. It is in fact impossible to walk on one path only. Intellectuals are devotional in that they love knowledge; it was a spark of devotion that prompted them to seek the truth. Devotional individuals must in turn have some knowledge of what they seek. Individuals on the way of action are obedient to a higher will that presupposes knowledge of the Supreme Self; their dedication of all their actions to the Self is pure devotion.
These three paths, along with the practice of meditation, complement and support each other and foster the harmonious development of the whole human being -- knowing, being, and doing. They are therefore most suited to the modern seeker who is fully engaged in life. This of course does not mean that individual seekers should not engage in any one specific path most suited to their nature. Jnana yoga, the path of wisdom, is said by many to be the best, while just as many claim the way of devotion to be the ultimate. As the debate goes on, a balanced approach seems to be a good course of action.
There is yet another system called raja yoga (raja means "king," from raj, "to reign, to illuminate"), also known as the "king of yogas." On this path, aspirants gain control over their minds and bodies through certain disciplines; thereby they gain knowledge of that which is beyond mind and unite with it. They attain identity with truth or samadhi through the practice of concentration, contemplation, and meditation -- one practice leading to the next.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali -- a reformulation of the teachings of the Upanishads -- describe the steps that lead to union with the Supreme. This system of practices and spiritual disciplines is another ancient and yet relevant model for Self-inquiry, each individual step serving as a guidepost along the path. There are many translations and elaborations of Patanjali's terse aphorisms, known as sutras (a Sanskrit word loosely translated as "threads"). One of these texts outlines the "Eight Steps to Enlightenment" -- a rigorous system of spiritual disciplines designed for hardy and fearless souls who, with an experienced guide and dauntless aspiration, reached samadhi through control and stilling of the mind. These various methods -- self-control, religious observance, physical postures, breath control, withdrawal of senses, concentration, meditation -- are based on observation and investigation. They might be called a scientific approach to spiritual development. These steps, which are said to include all possible psychological experiences, are as follows:
1. Yama. A firm determination to live a life dedicated to Truth. The five resolutions are harmlessness; truthfulness in speech and action; honesty; sublimation of all lower drives; lack of greed; lack of seeking of reward.
2. Niyama. Moderation in mind and body as a means of leading life towards truth. The five methods are: cleanliness of body and mind; contentment; critical examination of the senses; study of physics, metaphysics, and the nature of the psyche; realization of the oneness of individual existence with universal existence; complete self-surrender.
3. Asana. Physical exercise for the purpose of refining the mind and body to study truth.
4. Pranayama. The control of energy and breath.
5. Pratyahara. Sublimation of lower psychic energy for higher purposes.
6. Dharana. Fixation of attention on a particular object or idea with the aim of steadying the mind.
7. Dhyana. Continuous meditation and focusing attention on a particular spiritual object or idea.
8. Samadhi. Transformation of attention into object of attention.
In summation, yama relates to moral virtues, niyama to regular study of spiritual knowledge. Asana, pranayama, and pratyahara relate to the acquisition of powers for the transformation of lower into higher energies. Dharana relates to concentration, dhyana to meditation, and samadhi to absorption. The first five are external; the last three are internal.
Meditation Comes to the West
With the introduction of meditation into the West, we acquired the privilege of skipping a few of the steps. Steps three, four, and five are no longer regarded as necessary or useful. These steps may in fact lead to spiritual materialism in those who see the acquisition of powers as an end in itself and use them for selfish purposes and profit. Regular practice of meditation automatically regulates all the vital and hormonal processes and thus also takes care of steps three and four -- asana and pranayama. It also transforms lower energy into higher energy at step five (pratyahara) by the control of mind and withdrawal of the senses. In some ways meditation also takes care of steps one and two with its power to refine body, mind, and spirit. This is why the sages tell us that meditation is the "easy way" to enlightenment, especially in this time and age.
These principles and systems have been tested through the ages. They are no longer hidden, but are totally accessible to anyone willing to search. They should serve the harmonious unfolding of our true nature. If they do not bring about a flowering of our whole being, knowing, and doing, they are either not right for us or else they are being used in a rigid and uncreative manner that will burden us with rules rather than free us. As we practice them and see their effects in our lives, we will begin to appreciate the importance of such guides.
Being Consciousness Bliss: A Seeker's Guide
by Astrid Fitzgerald.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Lindisfarne Books.www.lindisfarne.org
About the Author
Astrid Fitzgerald is an artist, writer, and passionate student of the Perennial Philosophy who has applied its principles to her life and art for over thirty years. She is the author of An Artist's Book of Inspiration: A collection of Thoughts on Art, Artists, and Creativity, and is a member of the Society for the Study of the Human Being in New York City. Visit her website at: www.astridfitzgerald.com