Making Sense of the Spiritual Life


With detours into the history of England, and a few bars of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”

Having become interested in the spiritual life in my youth, I have spent many years trying to make sense of it. This is as it should be, since the transition from worldly life to spiritual life can take time for some people, especially those like me who are stubborn and set in their ways.

The best advice comes from spiritual masters who know the subject inside out, and who possess not only knowledge, but also the power to guide seekers in their inner lives and act like private tutors.

I am only a fellow seeker, and not a first-rate one at that. Yet, among those who struggle to make sense of the spiritual life, homespun wisdom from fellow seekers is sometimes valued. So please take anything you may find helpful from my comments here.

In the Western world, we are used to separating knowledge by subject. We spend an hour in history class, then we go to archery or calculus. But spirituality is an integral subject that is meant to apply to life as a whole — all of life.

We are also used to very limited commitments in which we don’t invest ourselves fully. We may go for a baccalaureate degree, but our heart is not in it and we are only counting the days till we meet all the requirements.

Spirituality is different because when it dawns in our lives, it’s a life-process. It begins to change us, and these changes are holistic. Spirituality is not a limited subject, but a life-process which will dictate the course of our lives for the future. Some people make faster progress because they fully cooperate with this process. They accept it wholeheartedly, and do not self-sabotage their own highest goals.

Spirituality also differs because it’s not something imposed from without by society. We begin the spiritual journey because we feel the inner need. Often, we have a series of experiences which convince us of the need to follow a spiritual path. This need comes from within, from our soul. Then, when we outwardly connect with a particular teacher and path, we get a very strong inner response and may have conversion experiences which affect us deeply and tell us that we have found the right teacher.

These things concern God, the soul, and our inner life. The conversion experience or spiritual initiation takes place in the very depths of our heart, and afterward we are inwardly changed, though it may take some time for our lives to begin to change outwardly.

The soul is like the charioteer, but the other parts of our being may be dark and unruly, always looking for an opportunity to rebel, to gallop off in some other direction. What the soul loves, our own mind and vital may hate. But by practising spirituality, we aim to gradually bring the mind and vital under control, so that they cooperate in the soul’s mission.

When we are conscious of God and of the soul, we feel that the spiritual life is something good and beneficial. This is not merely a mental attitude, but something we feel deeply as a life-experience. We try to please God and please our soul, and we find that we receive many inner blessings for our efforts. These inner blessings help to convince us that we are doing the right thing in our lives by taking the spiritual approach.

But if we fall victim to doubt — if we doubt God, doubt the soul, and doubt the spiritual master who gave us initiation — then those very things which we took for many years to be good will suddenly seem bad. This is sometimes known as a hostile attack, where a person who was once very spiritual becomes a stark atheist and actively tries to take away the faith of others, or negate other’s spiritual efforts.

Faith can only be known by means of faith; love of God can only be known by love of God; light can only by seen by means of light. If we lose access to these things, then if we are spiritual seekers we will not be able to make sense of our lives, because for spiritual seekers, faith, love of God, and love of light are the essence of life.

As consumers, we are used to purchasing products which we can use at our sweet will, and throw out when we tire of them. According to this philosophy, a good product is one which is cheaply bought, does everything we want, and does not require any upkeep.

If we are spiritual seekers, then if we judge the spiritual life with our heart and soul, we will feel that it is everything to us, it is the source of our deepest joy, and the essence of who we are. “I am the soul, and the soul is a portion of the Life-Breath of God.” This is the blissful life-experience of the devoted aspirant.

But if we judge the spiritual life as if it were a consumer product, then easily we can find fault with it. Spirituality does not turn on and off like a light switch; when we look for it, we cannot always find it immediately; it requires daily upkeep or else like fine Tudor silver it will tarnish.

What’s more, the art of spirituality lies in self-giving. We do not become spiritual by hoarding something or grabbing something for ourselves. In order to grow into spirituality, we need to give deeply of ourselves. This self-giving makes us kings or queens in the inner world, but usually does not make us rich. People who care nothing for faith, love of God, and love of light may say we are failures because we are not basking in material wealth. But when we are living the spiritual life, we feel that we are getting utmost joy, and that a life of material pleasure would only detract from that joy.

We can only know the joy of self-giving by learning the art of it. As I discuss in “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics and High Ethics”:

Trying to become more self-giving is a great adventure, and is something people do as a means of self-improvement, to perfect their own nature. If they practice at it, then slowly and steadily they may improve. But occasionally one encounters people whose nature is brittle. Something in them snaps. They completely reject the years they spent in spiritual practice, and become more selfish than they ever were before. They become obsessed with discrediting the spiritual ideals and movements they formerly embraced. This type of negative ego reaction is something one has to guard against. One simple suggestion I would offer which applies equally to people of all faiths is to always try and be a good-hearted person, not mean-spirited or vindictive. If you have given, do not regret giving.

You have to be honest about why you chose to lead a self-giving life. It’s because you saw the wisdom in it, and because for many years it gave you joy. If you’re not honest with yourself, then you have no hope of regaining what you lost.

Just because someone has experienced a rebellion in their nature doesn’t mean their spiritual progress has to end. Some people have these extremes within them, so they progress by lurching from side to side. It is not ideal, but it is workable. After a period in which you have become doubting, selfish, and hostile, you can gradually bring yourself back to the starting point and once again begin to practice self-giving, which includes both inner charity and outer charity.

The outer charity we know: to give money or volunteer one’s time. But what is the inner charity? To think good thoughts, to feel kindness, sympathy, and love towards others, to feel gratitude to God.

Now, I would like to focus in on a subject which requires some insight and mental analysis. When someone suffers a hostile attack, how do they view the spiritual life? Most of the rewards of the spiritual life are inner; and spirituality is a life-process which by its very nature requires that we continue to walk along the path (whatever path the seeker has chosen, whether it is Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, or something else).

So if we judge the spiritual life like secular consumers, we may say that the spiritual life is very bad because when we stop leading it, we can become depressed or ill. Just like taking vitamins and eating healthy foods daily, when we practice the spiritual life daily, this strengthens us and softens the blow from many negative experiences which would otherwise hit us head on. When someone suffers a hostile attack and ends their spiritual practice, they may become depressed or even physically ill, because they are depriving themselves of something which as spiritual seekers they need for their health and well-being. I believe this to be a subtle inner law.

In some cases, when people lose faith in the spiritual teacher who first gave them initiation, they may descend into drug and alcohol abuse. But these problems are not caused by the spiritual life.

Suppose we take ignorance to be a most painful disease which afflicts humanity as a whole. You have ignorance, I have ignorance, he has ignorance, she has ignorance. But some of us take daily medicine to counteract ignorance. This medicine is our spiritual practice. This helps to lessen our ignorance, and we do not suffer so much.

Now, with any course of tablets, you can judge over time whether or not it is helping your condition. You used to suffer so much from this, that and the other, but with a particular medicine you are suffering far less. Then when you stop taking the medicine, your condition becomes acute. So you know the medicine is helping for two reasons:

1. When you were taking the medicine, your condition improved.
2. When you stopped taking the medicine, your suffering returned.

BUT (and this is very important!): When people suffer a hostile attack, they end their spiritual practice, and then blame the spiritual life for all the problems which ensue. This is clearly a misattribution of cause and effect.

I have personally seen people become unhappy after making a sudden, abrupt change in their lives — a change where they cut themselves off from people and activities which had once sustained them emotionally and spiritually. Then, in their unhappiness, they misattribute the cause, blaming the people and activities from which they cut themselves off.

In the language of the street: you blow someone off, then complain they’re not there for you. But how can they be? You pushed them away!

It’s also like a child who kills her parents, then demands sympathy because she’s an orphan. Or like a patient who’s making progress by taking a prescribed course of medicine; then she stops taking the medicine, gets sick, and (crazily) blames the doctor!

Worldly life is all around us; most of us grew up leading the material life, a life based largely on pleasure and ego-gratification. We get some satisfaction from this, but it is a limited teaching, and therefore provides only limited satisfaction. For some people it is enough; for others not.

If in your youth you underwent a series of spiritual experiences and then spent ten or twenty years leading the spiritual life, that means you are a spiritual seeker by nature. Your needs are different from someone whose main drive (and therefore main satisfaction) is in ego and ambition.

Spiritual life differs from worldly life. When we graduate to spiritual life we need to unlearn many things which worldly life taught us. We try to progress from limited truths which provide limited satisfaction to vast truths which provide infinitely greater satisfaction. So worldly life is good in its way, but if we are spiritual seekers then we learn to go beyond it. We graduate to a higher teaching.

If you lead the spiritual life for ten or twenty years, this further prepares you to lead the spiritual life, not worldly life. If you do a sudden about-face, you may experience ill effects. But these ill effects are not caused by the spiritual life, spiritual teacher, or spiritual community; they’re caused by your own abrupt cessation of spiritual practices which had sustained you for many years.

In The Karate Kid, Pat Morita famously advises Ralph Macchio:

Walk on road… Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do “yes” or karate do “no.” You karate do “guess so,” just like grape. Understand?

This relates to my earlier point about not self-sabotaging your own highest goals. Spiritual life do “yes”? I guess so, but I also want a tattoo, want to learn ballroom dancing, want a personal trainer, want to get married…

We all tend to suffer from the problem that, on the one hand, a part of us is sincere in wanting to go on the spiritual quest. But another part of us, like a terrorist, issues a list of vital demands that must be met! Or, like the camel putting its nose under the tent, we keep adding one more desire, one more desire, until finally the teacher says “No more!” What can the poor teacher do? It’s his job to whittle down our desires, not constantly surrender to them.

Pat Morita’s catchy monologue reflects a universal law: You have ample opportunity to decide what will really satisfy you in life. You can try out the spiritual life for a short time without making any commitment. But eventually you have to choose: Spiritual life do “yes” or spiritual life do “no.” The fact that you eventually have to make a commitment and stick to it is really not a drawback; it’s more in the essential nature of the thing — something to be understood and eventually accepted.

There is a kind of inner obligation which cannot be understood apart from questions about the nature of the soul. The soul is like the charioteer, but some people want to throw out the charioteer and pilot their own lives in a whimsical manner. The soul is also like a most beautiful child which needs to be fed in a certain way, a spiritual way. When someone receives initiation from a spiritual master so that their heart is opened and they are inundated with the light of the soul, this means their soul has a connection with that particular master. As the human being has a human father, to the soul-child the spiritual master is the spiritual father. In this case, the soul will feel miserable if the human being prevents it from being close to the spiritual master, or even tries to harm or harass the spiritual master.

When the soul comes to the fore in our day-to-day activities, we spontaneously experience bliss and a beautiful flowing quality. But if we greatly displease our soul, then the soul does not come to the fore and life will seem tired, forced, mechanical. In some cases, the soul will even place pressure on the human being to act in a more divine manner. Suffering may come if we greatly displease our own soul or go against its wishes. This is not superstition, but a valuable inner truth. How should we take this truth? The idea is not to live in fear, but rather live in harmony with the soul-child who dreams. Sri Chinmoy writes:

The Soul-Bird

O world-ignorance,
You have shackled my feet,
I am free.

You have chained my hands,
I am free.

You have enslaved my body,
I am free.

I am free because I am not of the body.
I am free because I am not the body,
I am free because I am the soul-bird
That flies in Infinity-Sky.
I am the soul-child that dreams
On the Lap of the immortal King Supreme.

When we identify with the soul and try and please the soul, this leads to freedom, and in freedom there is peace and bliss. This is the positive way to understand the nature of the soul.

We cannot be all things to all people. Worldly life is a mass-produced commodity. We begin life as one of the herd, but eventually we learn something of our own needs and aspirations. It is our soul which makes us feel our uniqueness, and reveals to us a path which is ours and not somebody else’s. Eventually, we follow the path which is right for us. We follow a spiritual path to the best of our capacity, even if it is only a beginner’s capacity, even if we see that we make millions of mistakes due to our previous association with ignorance.

As I discuss in “Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy,” life is cyclic. We sometimes go through phases which are more spiritual or less so. We need to ride the ups and downs without ever losing hope, abandoning our spiritual practice, or allowing our nature to become hostile and destructive. Otherwise, no matter how many good things we have done before, if we become outwardly destructive then we court cosmic punishment for our misdeeds.

A Swami of the Ramakrishna Order of Monks used to say that life is constant petting and slapping. When we do good things, life pets us. When we do bad things, life slaps us. We cannot avoid this, since the law of karma applies to everyone, even kings and queens.

Once upon a time in the sixteenth century, there was a great Queen called Queen Elizabeth. She ruled England with intelligence and diligence during a golden era which saw the flowering of poetry, music, and theatre.

But there came a time when Queen Elizabeth became totally dissatisfied with all the obligations that go with being a Queen. After too much English drama, bickering between Catholics and Protestants, and the invasion of Latin music in 1588, she felt she could get more enjoyment by being one of the common people. So one day, she disguised herself in attire that was most ordinary, slipped out of the palace, and made her way to a publick house where there was dancing and merrymaking.

There, she became carried away by the festivities, and began dancing upon a tabletop as others clapped. Then she lost her balance, fell, and nearly broke her collarbone. Much to her surprise, no one even offered to help her up. They were too caught up in the dancing, and another dancer quickly took her place upon the tabletop.

How coarse these people were! Although she got a little attention from them, they were really not capable of appreciating her queenly qualities. When she finally held out her hand to indicate that she wished to be helped up off the floor, a man quickly grasped it. But the man was drunk, and began singing “Bess, you is my woman now” in one-and-a-half part harmony. His breath reeked of tobacco. When she moved to break away from him, he cursed her, calling her an “ungrateful wench.”

She departed the publick house and soon returned to Richmond Palace to resume her duties. She philosophized that even if she faced many difficulties as Queen, at least these difficulties were commensurate with her station in life, and by discharging them faithfully she would be true to her own destiny.

Our human wisdom will say that a common pub-goer should not have insulted Queen Elizabeth. But in the story, only when she was buffeted by crude people did she realize she was in the wrong place. If you choose to make a spectacle of yourself in a publick house, all bets are off as to what may happen, and the same might be said today of the Internet.

According to their soul’s need and the life they have led, each person has a place where they cosmically belong and where they are protected. When they go to the right place and do those things which are needful, life pets them. If they go to the wrong place and betray the truths and values which are their birthright, then life slaps them. They may be ridiculed, treated rudely and in an unaccustomed manner. There is no solution to this problem other than to go to the right place and do the right thing. Only by discharging our rightful duties can we be free of them.

There is always suffering in life. But some suffering serves a noble purpose and helps to bring us spiritual wisdom. Other suffering merely debases us unnecessarily. Since we cannot avoid suffering, then if we are spiritual seekers by custom and practice, let us try to go to the right place, do the right thing, and endure such suffering as will ennoble us. Or as Lennon-McCartney famously sang: “Get back! Get back! Get back to where you once belonged.”

lavanya-sri-chinmoy-1975-jharna-kala-filmThis is not an absolutist philosophy. As I always say, if you cannot do good, then at least do no harm. Try to weather a spiritually low period without becoming an outwardly destructive person.

The difficulty is that because we cherish some negative feelings, we seek out a negative community. Then we inherit other people’s problems as well as our own.

During a spiritually low period, old friends who have become absolutely hostile to the teacher who initiated them may invite you to join them. They want you to loudly and publicly denounce your faith.

If you take bad counsel and burn all your spiritual bridges behind you, if you become a “spiritual saboteur,” then how will you cycle back to a spiritual phase of life? The spiritual world will disown you, and spiritual people will want nothing to do with you. You will be left to the tender mercies of people who pretend to be loving and compassionate, but would kick their old guru down a flight of stairs if they had the chance. Such will be your new traveling companions.

Once, these people begged a guru to give them initiation and help them with their life-problems. Then, through lack of vigilance they allowed base desire and ambition to once again enter into them, to rule them and own them. Now, they see their old guru as merely an impediment to their love life or business life. They want to go on a million dollar shopping spree, and his teachings on self-giving are standing in their way. So they would be happy to murder him if only he had not already left the body.

Do not hate whom your soul loves, or you may court cosmic punishment. This punishment does not come from God or from the spiritual master, but from some other place. Just as the inner world is filled with gods and goddesses who are ready to shower the heads of spiritual aspirants with compassion, the inner world also has dharma protectors who mete out punishment to those who constantly break the cosmic law. You cannot fool them with some smarmy talk about why you acted like an ingrate and a scoundrel, because they see into your very soul.

When we no longer care for compassion, our better angels desert us, and our fate comes to depend on a quite different set of beings who are unforgiving in their judgement. When we thumb our nose at compassion, we get justice instead. It is we who choose.

These things must be said because they are of benefit to those who have left the path of love and devotion, and are now progressing unconsciously through the infinitely slow and painful path of justice. Is compassion not a better teaching?

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Bonus Track: Miles Davis – There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York

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6 comments on “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life

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