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Basic principles of spiritual practice
How can we ensure rapid spiritual progress towards achieving Bliss?
Rapid spiritual progress can be achieved when we do spiritual practice according to the basic principles of Spirituality. Even though there are many different types of spiritual practice, whether our spiritual practice adheres to the basic principles of Spirituality is a true litmus test for its effectiveness. If not, we run the risk of putting in a lot of effort but not seeing the results that match that effort.
The six basic principles of spiritual practice are:
1. There are as many paths to God as there are people
When undertaking spiritual practice it is important to bear in mind that each individual is different and so what works for one person may not work for another. When climbing a mountain each climber thinks his way is the only way. But when he reaches the top of the mountain, he realizes that there were an infinite number of ways that could have taken him to the top. Likewise there are as many paths to God as there are people.
If five patients were to go to a doctor and each was suffering from a different ailment, then giving all five the same medicine would not result in each of them being cured. So also each of us are different and hence the same spiritual practice cannot be recommended for all. In a spiritual context each of us is unique across the following parameters.
The impact of our efforts is much more powerful when we concentrate our efforts on the one, instead of the many.
Which is more effective?
Digging one well to access water which is 10 meters deep or digging 10 wells of 1 meter each.
Accruing frequent flyer miles from various airlines or sticking to just one airline.
The following is how this principle works depending on the various generic paths to God.
Path of Action (Karmayoga): In the initial stage, a seeker gives alms to several beggars. In the next stage, he focuses his efforts on a single cause such as a donation to a school or a hospital.
Path of Knowledge (Dnyānyoga): After studying various spiritual texts from new age philosophy to religious texts, a seeker finally turns to a single one that has the most percentage of spiritual truth in it.
Path of Devotion (Bhaktiyoga): A seeker progresses from worship of several Deities to that of one, goes to one place of pilgrimage rather than to many, reads one book of Holy verses rather than many.
Path of Chanting the Name of God (Namsankirtanyoga): Here, the seeker chants the Name of only one Deity instead of many.
Path of Guru’s Grace (Gurukrupāyoga): After visiting several Saints, a seeker finally visits only one Guru. Irrespective of the path of Spirituality one follows, spiritual progress does not really occur beyond a certain level without the grace of a Guru.
The composition of the 3 subtle basic components (triguṇās) i.e. whether they are sāttvik, rājasik or tāmasik by nature.
The five Cosmic Principles (Panchamahābhūtās) or Earth (Pruthvī), Water (Āpa), Fire (Tēj), Air (Vāyu) and Ether (Ākāsh)
The degree to which different aspects of spiritual practice have been completed in prior births.
A person may also adopt a certain path depending on his temperament.
This principle states that we need to improve upon our spiritual practice by going from just physical actions, to a practice at a more subtle level.
A subtle spiritual practice is more powerful than a gross one. Take for example, a relationship where two people shake hands in friendship, while in reality, they may not like each other. The physical display of friendship is merely a façade. On the other hand, two people may feel genuine goodwill towards each other even though there may be no physical contact.
Likewise, when it comes to practicing Spirituality, going through the motions of external ritualistic worship (physical level) with no devotion needs to be replaced by having real inner devotion for God, or intense desire for spiritual growth.
4. Undertaking spiritual practice as per the spiritual level or spiritual capacity
We must check that the spiritual practice we choose is as per our spiritual capacity or spiritual level. A student, who has passed grade 3, will not be able to sit for the grade 4 exams if he has been continually studying only the grade 3 syllabus.
So too spiritual seekers should try to improve their capacity to do spiritual practice so as to not get stuck at one level of spiritual practice.
Let us go through the various stages of development from more gross forms of worship to more subtle forms as per the level of the seeker:
- At an initial level we feel that we can make contact with the Divine only by going to a place of worship and through praying to a statue of God or a Divine Being.
- Next we feel a connection with the Divine not just through rituals but through reading spiritual books whilst sitting in the place of worship.
- In the next stage we feel that even words are too gross, and just experiencing the vibrations in a church or temple are enough to spiritually nourish a person.
- After this we do not need to even go to a place of worship, but can experience God in the beauty of Nature; high up in the mountains, at a serene lake, etc.
- At an even higher level, we do not need nature anymore but can experience God in daily living. Even if we are in an unpleasant place such as a filthy slum or in the middle of a war zone, we can perceive the comforting blanket of God’s presence, and can worship Him there in the quiet presence of our hearts.
5. Doing spiritual practice relevant to the times
In all things in life there is a time for them to happen. If the right thing happens at the wrong time then the desired result is not achieved. For example, if seeds are sown in the dry months instead of the rainy season, they do not take root no matter how fertile the land is. Similarly, certain spiritual practices are conducive according to the time or era.
Satyayug: This was a very pure era when the average spiritual level of a person was 70% (this is the level of a Saint). These people were so pure spiritually that the Path of Knowledge was best suited to them as they had the potential to spontaneously understand the implied meanings of all spiritual scriptures.
Trētāyug: This was the era when the spiritual level of the average person dropped to 55% and so they lost their potential to follow the Path of Knowledge. But they were spiritually capable enough to undertake penance (the kind that allowed a seeker stand on one foot for 12 years) and meditation (the kind that made a seeker meditate long enough for an ant hill to grow all over him).
Dwāparyug: There was a further decline in spiritual levels and people lost their potential for rigorous penance and sustained meditation. So it was divinely ordained such that they would be able to make progress through ritualistic worship. These rituals and sacrificial fires (yadnyas) were very time consuming and laborious as they had to be done after searching for the right ingredients. Along with this there were numerous steps which had to be followed to the last detail. But people were religious-minded enough to spend the time, effort and money to do them.
Kaliyug: This is translated as the ‘Era of strife’ and is the current period. The average person’s spiritual level has dropped to only 20%. Our capacity to do any of the above spiritual practices has greatly reduced. But considering the turbulent times we live in and the extent of the spiritual pollution – God has made a simple provision for us to still grow spiritually. All He wants of us to do as spiritual practice, is repeat His Name.
All of us have some kind of resources at our disposal. These have been given to us by God. A basic principle in spiritual practice is that we use these same resources to serve Him as part of our spiritual practice and grow spiritually. The resources we have fall broadly into four categories:
1. Our body
2. Our wealth and worldly connections
3. Our mind and intellect
4. Our sixth sense
Let’s look at these four aspects in a little more detail:
1. Our body
Serving by our body’ means using our body to serve God. For example:
- Cleaning a venue and getting it ready for a lecture on Spirituality
- Driving seekers to the venue
- Putting up posters to advertise a lecture on Spirituality
2. Our wealth and worldly connections
An example of serving God by offering our wealth and worldly connections respectively would be:
- Paying for the venue where a spiritual discourse is to be conducted
- Arranging for a lecture on Spirituality at an institute which one is associated with
3. Our mind and intellect
Using our mind and intellect is about using our creative and intellectual processes to serve God. Examples of this would include:
- Using our intellect to study Spirituality, put it into practice and then tell others about it
- Using our writing skills to spread Spirituality by writing articles on Spirituality
- Helping in the maintaining of records and administration of an event
4. Our sixth sense
Some of us have been gifted with sixth sense from an early age. This is due to spiritual practice from either a previous birth or from this birth. The onus is on us to use it only to facilitate spiritual growth in us and others. The use of our sixth sense needs to be under the guidance of a Spiritual Master.
In summary, the following points can be kept in mind:
- By consistently offering what we have to serve God as part of our spiritual practice, we grow spiritually.
- Even if one does not have wealth or a high intellect he can still offer his body in service to God and thereby grow spiritually.
- The four types of offerings mentioned above are not mutually exclusive. If a person has a good intellect and a strong understanding of Spirituality he may be inclined just to offer his intellect. However the principle is about ‘offering all what one has’. As the person has a body and also may have some wealth, he should offer that along with his intellect.
- Out of all offerings, the mind and intellect is the most superior as through that medium one can help others understand and practice Spirituality.