By Mansi Poddar
Without correct and sustained effort, there is no awakening of the divinity within
Milk does not transform into butter by itself. Effort is needed. You must set the milk to form curds, and then churn it. Only then can you get butter from it. Similarly, to live a spiritual life, you must imbibe the spiritual values of your path.
The true spiritual life is one of constant struggle because of weaknesses that are inherent within us and forces outside of us. So how can we grow deep in our spiritual journey? A couple of questions first. One is, “How does one define spiritual life?” The second is, “How does one develop a spiritual life?”
In Buddhism, a spiritual life revolves around mastery of oneself, and acceptance of inevitable suffering, with eventual transcendence through the noble eight-fold path. The path stresses disciplined practice, to control mind, body, behaviour, attitude, and finally transform.
According to Guru Granth Sahib, the human mind is inherently capricious and negative. The mind is naturally judgemental, selfish, and deceptive. In order to lead a spiritual life, self-discipline or a constant alertness over this deluded mind is needed.
Similarly, one of the precepts in Hinduism is spiritual self-discipline. Discipline is correct effort, and without correct and sustained effort, there is no awakening of the divinity within. Sustained effort ensures progress, be it financial, spiritual, or physical.
The other day, I met Naina, a spiritual aspirant. Naina battles infertility and is a breast cancer survivor. She describes herself as, ‘someone whose soul has exploded open and will never be the same shape again.’ Naina’s strength comes from her sadhana. At five am, Naina does yoga, and goes to the gym, eats a healthy breakfast, and continues with her day. She manages to devote over an hour to reading the Gita, Dhammapada and various other texts, while fitting in some ‘quiet, meditative time, when I ponder on my life and how to integrate my readings.’
Naina describes her life as spiritual, and her stability comes from her daily discipline, and practice. Earlier, she was wary about people, and stuck in negative interactions. Now, when she feels herself slipping into negative patterns, she is aware, and able, to consciously change her experience.
“I’m not perfect, I never will be, and I don’t want to. I am not good or great, I get angry, I hate, I get depressed for days, but I know I am more than that moment. This is what my sadhana is – awareness and compassion towards others and myself. I have lots of love in my life because of my sadhana. I am mindful of my mind, body, emotions, attitude, and behaviour. There is no magic in my sadhana, but my life has changed due to conscious sustained discipline, and effort. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”
Like Naina, the spiritual life is for ordinary human beings – people who have careers, who are homemakers, who must wash dishes, buy shoes and socialise. In fact, spiritual values are best lived in the midst of our daily activities. If they are to have any transforming effect, the effect must be found in the banalities of human life – in our relationships with our spouse, our siblings, our friends, and neighbours. By itself, spirituality can do nothing; it can only get us to the place where something can be done, and to get to that place, one requires sustained discipline.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, commenting on spiritual discipline, says, “Certain practices insulate you, yet retain your sensitivity at the same time. This needs training and education. We all have ten fingers and though everyone has the ability, only a few can play the guitar. Only those few who have learned how to play the guitar or the flute or the trombone can play it.”
Similarly, Sabuji, an accomplished and renowned naturopath and yoga instructor in Kolkata, says, “When I work with clients, I emphasise discipline. That is the most important quality in the spiritual, sattvic life.”
He explains that in each area of our lives, spirituality plays an important role. It influences our outlook and reactions. A non-spiritual person might not engage in seva, or compassion, whereas a spiritual aspirant will consciously strive to express such qualities in his relationships and attitude. This ability is born out of regular discipline, both mental, and physical.
“Practices such as yoga, study, meditation, and pranayama, can help us directly experience consciousness, and live from this understanding. Such practices create a fertile ground for spiritual conduct, and thought,” he says. Such activities are not meant merely for increasing knowledge, but for the improvement of our minds. If you put spiritual doctrine in a building, and when you leave the building, depart from the practices, you cannot gain its value. Therefore, it is better to practice sporadically than not practice at all.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in Live in a Better Way: Reflections on Truth, Love and Happiness, writes, “Self-discipline, although difficult, while combating negative emotions, should be a defensive measure. At least we will be able to prevent the advent of negative conduct dominated by negative emotion. Once we develop this, by familiarising ourselves with it, along with mindfulness and conscientiousness, eventually that pattern and way of life, will become a part of our own life.”
When an untoward event happens, we lose our balance, and often violate our spiritual principles and values. We are so unacquainted with the incredible discipline of saying, “Wait a minute, this situation is causing me to get angry, and judge, and I’m not going to let that happen. I’m going to take a deep breath and the answer is no, I’m not responding to this.”
If you can call back your focus and attention every time you are aware of yourself slipping you can call yourself disciplined. Discipline is the awareness of what is. Eventually, we begin to create our reality, and control our response, which generates our destiny. True spiritual discipline, and sustained practice, causes the transmutation of our personalities into spiritual gold.
Without discipline there is no way we can control our mind or our senses. The Katha Upanishadsexplains this clearly.
“Know the self (atman) as the lord of the chariot, and the body as the chariot. Know the intellect as the charioteer, and the mind as the reins. The senses are the horses … He who has no understanding, whose mind is always unrestrained, his senses are out of control, as wicked horses are for a charioteer. He, however, who has understanding, whose mind is always restrained, his senses are under control, as good horses are for a charioteer.” (Katha Up. 1, 3, 3-6)
Loosely translated this says, ‘The lord of the chariot (the self) is silently enduring the foolishness of the charioteer (the mind) and the madness of the horses (the senses). ‘Yoga is here defined as the method through which the mind (the charioteer) can bridle the wicked senses, in order that the self may get off the body and be united with Brahman: “This, they consider to be Yoga, the steady control of the senses.”
Naina, who steadily practises her sadhana or yoga, says she was not always committed and dedicated; this in turn made her spiritual practice fruitless and frustrated her. “I began to lose hope in God, spirituality and myself. I kept wondering why I did not feel calmer, or more stable. I did not feel any effect; no one described me as transformed, or even changed. I wasn’t any happier.”
Similarly, many of us face the struggle to be more disciplined, and this pressure causes us to abandon our practice. If you find yourself struggling with sustained practice, do not lose hope; make small changes. Spiritual transformation is a long-term, ongoing process with no end goal.
Some ideas suggested by various aspirants on spiritual discipline:
• Set aside a specific time for your practice
• Maintain a thought/emotion journal
• Be mindful of your thoughts, actions, emotions and attitude – that is mental discipline
• Be mindful of what you eat – food is sustaining, but unhealthy food is draining, so be disciplined in what, when, how much you eat.
• Remember to be kind to yourself if you are unable to practise daily, negative thoughts and emotions will not help you in any way.
• Have a physical practice if your health permits
• Think of your practice as a part of your life, much like sleep and food.
• Organise your day – maintain time and regularity but be open to unscheduled events. Rigidity and discipline are different.
Spirituality is the desire to merge with your own divinity and find it in others. It is action oriented where the self dissolves and coagulates simultaneously. Spiritual practice is alchemy of the mind and discipline is the philosopher’s stone, the mystic key that will make this evolution and transformation possible.
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