More important than what is behind you and what is ahead of you is what is IN you! Seek it and centered in it act and live. — Swami Chinmayananda
What is the “In you” that the renowned saint Swami Chinmayananda is referring to?
Is it our heart? Is it the brain? Or something else? We’ll get to the answer to that later. For this moment, I want you to stop whatever you are doing (after reading this), close your eyes and go into your feeling of existence; your absolute and confirmed feeling that you exist. That feeling about which you never had a doubt even when you were newly born into this world and you wailed loudly to the delight of the doctor who rested assured that your respiratory tract was clear. You were aware and conscious the moment you entered this world and you KNEW that you exist. What if I told you that you were aware and conscious even BEFORE you were born and even conceived? And I am not the one saying that, the ancient scriptures are!
What is a spiritual practice?
Spirituality is the teaching that points to something deeper and higher within us that we usually do not notice in the course of our mundane activities. In the Bhagavad Gita, this is referred to as raja guhyam or ‘the royal secret’. Spiritual practices are meant to help us uncover that secret. There are practices that may be required to be done ‘out there’ but all practices, ultimately, are only meant to lead you inwards to that place from where all your experiences are said to arise. We should be clear to differentiate spirituality from religion. Religion is an organized version of spirituality which follows the teachings of a particular prophet or book and bears loyalty to that. Spirituality is not based on anyone else but is totally one’s own discovery. You could be on Mars all alone and discover your deep spiritual core!
A non-intellectual learning
This freedom is worth more than all the lands on earth. To be one with the truth for just a moment is worth more than the world and life itself – Jalaluddin Rumi
The goal of all spiritual practices is to bring you face to face with your true nature which is described in the scriptures as sat-chit-ananda or existence-consciousness-bliss. This is a transformative experience of “unity with all things” like no other known experience.
Transformation is an effect that happens at a very deep level, unlike change which is more on the surface. Inner transformation happens by spiritual practices and not by intellectual analysis. I like to give the example of tasting honey for the first time. Let’s say you have never tasted honey and somebody describes the taste of honey to you as “sweet somewhat like sugar, viscous, yellow, sticky liquid.” Ten more people try to explain the taste of honey to you in their own unique ways. After having heard all this you are then given a spoon of honey and you taste it. Once you actually taste it, you know the taste of honey in a way which cannot really be described in words. This tasting of honey is a non-intellectual knowing. The taste is somehow “embedded” into your psyche in a way that if you taste honey after a gap of 5 years you will immediately recognize it.
This is an example of a “mini” inner transformation. Spiritual transformation happens when you know the deep inner feeling of existence and consciousness in a way similar to the way that you knew the taste of honey. No amount of reading or listening can match the actual experience of unity, just as nothing can match the actual tasting of the honey. In Vedanta, this experience is called Samadhi. Zen Buddhists call it kensho. However, the reading and intellectualization is not a useless activity, but constitutes part of the spiritual practice. This is an endless topic of argument in the spiritual community as to whether any reading or practices are actually needed to realize our true nature.
Why Spiritual Practice? – The story of the “sixth idli.”
Here is a story often related to traditional Vedantic teachers. A villager went to the city for some business. After resting for the night when he woke up early, he was very hungry. He walked into a small restaurant and asked the manager, “Can you give me something to satisfy my hunger?” The manager told him, “We have hot idlis (an Indian steamed rice cake). Each idli is a rupee. Please take a seat”. The villager ordered one idli. It was not enough to appease his hunger so he ordered one more. He went on like this till the sixth idli when finally he was satisfied. He finished up and paid the manager one rupee and started walking away. The manager stopped him and said, “You need to pay six rupees since you had six idlis”. The villager replied, “I asked you to give me something that will satisfy my hunger. It was only the sixth idli that appeased my hunger so I will pay only for that.”
In the penultimate part of their spiritual journey, spiritual seekers often forget the ‘five idlis’ they ate and think that only the ‘sixth idli’ would have been sufficient. Everything we practice in our spiritual journey plays a role to prepare us and bring us to that last step when we recognize the truth. Never say that all the yoga, breathing, chanting, charitable works, meditation, and listening you have done were useless. In fact, they were the ‘five idlis’ that were essential to prepare the ‘sixth idli’ to appease the hunger. Rejecting the five idlis is an act of arrogance and foolishness.
The spiritual path is a great mystery and transformation is an ever-so-subtle unfolding. The great poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The years teach much which the days never know”. Our views and opinions of the world change unnoticed and if you look back a few years you will be surprised how much they have changed. The transformation through spiritual practice also happens like that. So tread softly and with humility on this path because your destination is very noble and extremely sacred indeed.
Sit in a comfortable posture in a quiet place. Switch on your favorite musical piece, especially one that makes you experience waves of pleasure. Being very still pay intense attention to your music and try to find out as to where your enjoyment of this piece arises from. All enjoyment arises from a deeper place within us although it may appear on the surface as coming from the mind or brain. Repeated practice of this makes us more sensitive to this enjoyment and its presence.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series next week!