Our Spiritual Awakening
O my mind, wake up, wake up! For a long while you have not seen perfect happiness. Experience now this highest state of beatitude in front of you.
Adhyatma Yoga focuses on the original Yoga teachings, which are spiritual in their methods and purpose. The aim is to awaken our highest potentiality and find fulfilment through self-knowledge. Let us try to understand this process of awakening in its first stages, and what steps we might take in order to further the process.
The image of an awakening is used in the spiritual classics in different ways. Sometimes it reaches us like a trumpet blast to rouse us from our present world view—a world view which may have become a limited one, especially as regards our own possibilities and potentialities in life. With their trumpet call, ‘Awake’, the sages are reminding us that there is a realm of inner freedom that we are missing out on—something vital and fulfilling that we can learn to realize.
The short verse at the beginning goes straight to the point by encouraging us to give a firm command to our own mind. ‘O my mind, wake up, wake up!’ This already implies that the mind is the instrument and servant of the superior power which lies behind it—the power of the true Self.
Right now we may be seeking for happiness in the wrong quarters, and not finding it. If we ask ourselves what we really want, surely it is a happiness that is secure, lasting, free from limitations, threats and defects. The verse suggests such a happiness is possible. ‘For a long while you have not seen perfect happiness. Experience now this highest state of beatitude in front of you’, that is, close at hand. But to realize this beatitude, certain steps are necessary. The same message was given thousands of years ago in the Katha Upanishad:
Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the excellent ones. The wise ones describe that path to be as impassable as a razor’s edge, which, when sharpened, is difficult to tread on.
This verse refers to the inner awakening. It has many implications. First, it is a call for us to do something—a call for action. It confirms that a higher knowledge or beatitude does exist, and is enjoyed, and even taught, by those whom the verse calls ‘the excellent ones’, namely, the men and women of higher wisdom. To acquire such wisdom, there has to be a personal approach, rather than simply depending on information from books. As another tradition, Sufism, affirms: there is a window between heart and heart. In other words, help is available for the seeker from those hearts that are already lit by the higher experience.
The path is not presented as an easy one. It is compared to a walk on the edge of a razor. The image of the razor’s edge suggests a fine line along which we somehow have to advance against difficult odds. The hint of physical hardship is not to be taken literally. All illumined teachers are full of compassion, and none would wish to impose any physical ordeal on anyone. But the image of the razor’s edge does suggest a special kind of challenge. This includes learning how to make the right choices in daily life, so that we are able to keep in mind our higher purpose and follow it. This is easy to forget, because the nature of modern civilization goes against the quiet cultivation of the higher wisdom. Are we not surrounded by so many distractions and diversions, claiming our time and attention, and seeking to convince us that immediate sense pleasure is more worthwhile than inner tranquillity and philosophical reflection?
Then too we have to admit we ourselves are conditioned by our past habits and tendencies, and our present life-style. Therefore, the Bible, on this point, says: ‘Narrow is the way which leads to (everlasting) life, and few there be that find it.’ (Matthew, 7:14) One reason for our difficulties is that the fruit of Yoga practice—inner peace and light—is something of the utmost refinement and is subject to careful cultivation. Its nature and delight are unimaginable when we first set out on our journey. On the other hand, around and within us there are voices whispering: ‘Why are you interesting yourself in this unusual ideal? There are so many things you could be devoting yourself to, which are attractive, tangible and more obviously rewarding. The garden of life is full of charming colours and delightful scents. Why devote yourself to the cultivation of a single herb?’
Unless our determination is firm, these voices and invitations can easily turn our heads. They seem to be convincing and reasonable, and their clamour is likely to eclipse our more sensitive feelings about pursuing the path.
The verse from the Katha Upanishad says: ‘Arise, awake’. At first sight, it looks as if the author of the Upanishad has got things the wrong way round. Can you rise up without first being awake? And yet we all know what it is to be up and doing things, but still to feel half asleep. Do we not sometimes say, even in the middle of the morning: ‘O dear, this morning I still haven’t really woken up.’ Yet the fact that we have risen out of bed—that we have forced ourselves back into the hurly-burly of life—means that we will fully awaken as the day goes on, though it may take time before our brain gets into full working order. The crucial step has been taken: we have arisen. We resisted staying in bed and surrendering to a comfortable, but uncreative, sleep.
To arise means to become an active seeker, enquirer and learner. It means to throw off our natural inertia and love of comfort, and start to look for something which may lead to new psychological openings, to the possibility of an entirely new way of thinking and feeling. And many people at this restless stage do in fact try to make contact with the storehouse of enlightened thought, as transmitted by the illumined masters and their recorded words. Then we may be willing and able to open ourselves to its influence.
This arising is summed up in the words: ‘Learn, by approaching the excellent ones.’ Only by rousing ourselves in this way, will we be able to recognize and seize the opportunities for advancement and awakening which come our way.
When do the first stirrings of our true awakening come? Usually there are two phases: dissatisfaction with life, and then, a feeling that there must be something more to life. We start to feel that there must exist a higher purpose, which, if followed, will confer greater benefit and fulfilment than anything the world displays before us.
We may say: ‘Most people are dissatisfied with life in some way or other—dissatisfaction to do with our work, or our family life, our finances, politics, and so on.’ These dissatisfactions are voiced in our conversation and will probably be echoed in some way or other by our listener. But it would be misleading to regard dissatisfaction on this level as a sign of spiritual awakening. Why? Because on this level, the solution is still felt to be achievable within the world of multiplicity, which, we believe, contains what we are looking for, and its values are still supported and trusted by us.
Spiritual awakening is preceded by a deeper, more persistent dis-satisfaction. Human nature has hidden depths and finer feelings. These cannot always be expressed in words, but there is a phrase which may give a hint of the dissatisfaction with life associated with the spiritual awakening: ‘divine discontent’. This implies that the whole range of worldly goods and achievements cannot satisfy my deeper needs. Whatever I do, wherever I go, something seems to be missing. This feeling may come as a sense of restriction. We crave expansion and freedom, yet all our experiments in life fail to remove the inner discontent. A poetess of Japan has expressed this sense of restriction in a haiku:
I do not consider myself worth counting
But sometimes—even for me—
Heaven and earth are too small.
Here the poetess claims to be just an ordinary person, as she says, not worth counting. Yet somehow, within her heart, there is an extraordinary desire which seems to aim at nothing less than transcendence—a going beyond both heaven and earth—that is, a going beyond both the everyday world and the world of religious merit.
This thirst for a life experience which is ever richer, deeper and more expansive, is one of the themes of the writings of the German author, Goethe. In one of his works, Wilhelm Meister, he includes a short biographical sketch of a woman known and revered by him, in a chapter called Confessions of a Fair Saint. Like most rich young women of that time, she was expected to spend her days in trivial, pleasurable pursuits like social gossip, dancing, outings, picnics, flirtations, and so on. These were available in abundance, and seemed to provide everyone with a great deal of fun.
But after flowing with this stream for some time, mysterious changes began to take place within her, which seemed to be connected with something she had experienced now and then in childhood, but which was later lost as other preoccupations took over. Somehow, there began to emerge within her a stirring of the soul, which led to a more persistent dissatisfaction with the life she was leading. This life-style began to seem not only hollow and uncreative, but in some sense to thwart her deeper longings. She records:
I very soon discovered that the straight direction of my soul was marred by foolish dissipations and by my employment with unworthy things... I required some strong support, but God would not vouchsafe it me, while I was running with the cap and bells.
As we know, the cap and bells were part of the costume of the court jester or fool, whose job was to entertain. In the simple image of the Persian mystic, Saadi, she was beginning to realize that she could not sail in two boats that were going in opposite directions at the same time. Sooner or later, a choice of life aim would have to be made. And so we find this woman asking herself:
What could it be which so changed my tastes and feelings, that, in my twenty-second year, nay earlier, I lost all relish for the recreations with which people of that age are harmlessly delighted? Why were they not harmless for me? I may answer, Just because they were not harmless; because I was not, like others of my years, unacquainted with my soul. No! I knew, from experiences which had reached me unsought, that there are loftier emotions, which afford us a contentment such as it is vain to seek in the amusements of the world; and that, in these higher joys, there is also kept a secret treasure for strengthening the spirit in misfortune.
One may suspect that this kind of inner upheaval is not unusual, but that it is not always easy for people to realize what is happening to them. Nor do they necessarily realize that this development is in fact the brightest window of opportunity that will ever confront them in life.
At this point we may say: ‘O well, the rise of such sentiments is simply an emotional response. It may give a stimulus to look for something higher, but it is a stimulus that will soon pass. Common sense is bound to return, and these aspirations will once again be lost in the normal routines of life.’
But this quest, that leads to the spiritual awakening, goes far deeper than emotion. Many serious enquirers have weighed up life and its gifts; they have examined carefully what is on offer here and have decided, quite rationally, that it is not enough to satisfy the deeper urges of the soul. The philosophy of the Upanishads, on which this Yoga is based, is not one of escape but of outgrowth. The Upanishads are not giving teachings to meet an emotional crisis. They are there to help anyone who has seen clearly the transiency of worldly goals. As one Upanishad says, it is only after thoroughly examining what the world can offer, that one arrives at an attitude of detachment and goes to a teacher for higher instruction.
Where there is this willingness to consider new possibilities, the teachings of the great spiritual traditions become meaningful. Such teachings were evolved to meet this awakening situation and give us precise instructions and guidelines on how to further and complete the process. As we heard from the Katha Upanishad: ‘Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the excellent ones.’ This divine discontent—the sign of awakening—can be seen as a cry for the infinite beyond limitations.
Some would say, ‘There is no infinite. Even if there were such a principle, it would have no point of contact with our finite human life.’ But the truth is otherwise. The dissatisfaction we feel is not futile. It has a deep significance. It is as if we have lost touch with something essential in our own being. We do have a sense of infinity and freedom, even of perfection. We feel it must exist somewhere. It does. It is within us. Our true nature is the infinite and changeless Reality. Any other idea of self-hood will in the end have to be corrected and replaced by our realization of the infinite Self as not other than our own Self. This is the way to ultimate freedom.
The Upanishads make it clear that in this deeper self-knowledge lies the secret of happiness. The Chandogya Upanishad warns us that there is no real happiness to be found in the realm of the finite—the realm of things and experiences which have a beginning, middle and end, and are changing all the time. We need to learn how to enter the quiet depths of our own being, where our self-knowledge is likened to the discovery of a treasury of gold buried in our garden, overlooked because no one told us about it. Turning our attention in the direction of this inner treasury, we approach the source of happiness, the happiness of realization of the infinite. This message is one of great hope and reassurance—a promise of joy, peace and freedom near at hand.
Do the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita teach a new religion? They go deeper and beyond any religious creed, revealing truth which applies to each and everyone, and to the whole cosmos. They declare that there is one supreme power running through and supporting everything, just as the unseen thread is the hidden support of the necklace of pearls. In the deepest sense, all life is sacred, and there is a genuine underlying unity linking together everything. This being so, the teaching about the supreme reality prescribes an attitude of harmlessness and co-operation, in order to prepare our mind for a higher understanding.
The absolute Reality in which all phenomena inhere equally is called Brahman. And knowledge of Brahman, brahmavidya. in Sanskrit, is not only possible but necessary for human beings, if we are to enjoy true liberation. A verse from the Shvetashvatara Upanishad declares:
I have known that great effulgent essence, which is like the sun after darkness, knowing which one goes beyond death. There is no other way to liberation.
This realization is the highest joy, the most fulfilling knowledge and certainty of experience.
How do we advance this process of awakening? First, we need a special kind of faith—a faith that works in partnership with our intellect, and leads to direct experience. Questions and probing are at the heart of all true spiritual traditions. Such faith is grounded in the conviction: ‘Yes, this teaching makes sense and applies to me personally.’ It is not so much faith in a doctrine but in a hidden presence. It embraces faith that we have a deeper Self and the capacity to realize it directly. Such faith also includes trust in the divine Power, as a source of help and as the underlying reality, in essence identical with our real Self. If we are fortunate enough to have an enlightened teacher, a trusting attitude to their guidance will help us most of all.
At this stage, we need to appreciate that we have now entered a learning curve and have become conscious learners. From this position, we regard all that happens to us, including disappointments and seeming calamities, as in some way driving us on to our goal. They have something to teach us, which will come to light if we sustain our research and meditation. This is not superstition or belief in a personal guardian angel. This help is rooted in the teachings on true identification. True identification means making practical use of the insight: ‘I am not the body. I am not the mind. I am the immortal spirit, and this is my true Self. Everything that happens is driving me to realize this truth.’
The English poet Coleridge gave an indication of the way all our experiences can be made to drive us nearer to our goal, when he wrote:
All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of love,
And feed his sacred flame.
Faith in our spiritual potentiality also means faith in our capacity to infuse the teachings with life, for if we follow the traditional instructions, we will gain light. Recalling the metaphor of awakening, we need to be warned that human nature loves to go back to sleep. There is a conservative part of our nature which is against change. Change involves a movement from a position we are used to. It is a step into the unknown, and possibly into a field of unwelcome effort. Our caution and reluctance are understandable, and have their protective wisdom. But the downside of this self-protective attitude is that our highest potentialities remain unrealized. The awakening involves an inner revelation of a higher truth, in which the barriers of finitude fall away.
Our mind is the garden beneath which the treasury of gold is buried. The Sanskrit word for mind is antahkarana, which means ‘inner organ’. For practical purposes, this inner organ is held to embrace the whole of the mental and emotional life—its surface as well as its depths—and includes the higher faculties of will, intellect and intuition. It is this part of our being that is the focus of the Yoga training and the key to our freedom.
It is normal to believe that our mind is basically in good order, and that we have already reached a grade of competence and maturity in our thinking. And so, all we have to do in order to benefit from spiritual teachings, is to get to know them well enough. This may involve an ongoing course of reading, but it seems to be a valid approach.
Yet experience shows that the collection and absorption of spiritual information is not enough to melt the inner chains. Up to now we have been relying on qualities already familiar to us. To make further progress, we need to learn to draw upon new resources and powers that are lying dormant within us, and which relate to our higher nature.
Each meditation text in the traditional Yoga of Self-Knowledge gives an indication of these new capacities. The meditations have power because they relate to the eternal, omnipotent reality of our true being—the source of peace and wisdom.
As we develop, so does our awareness that the true Self is independent of the workings of our mind. This detached awareness ensures that our outlook stays balanced. For example, we often find that when we try to quieten our mind, it presents itself as a centre of resistance. This resistance manifests as distraction, sleepiness, agitation, boredom, and so on—anything that serves to divert our attention from the theme prescribed for our contemplation. This is all part of the learning curve we are now on. It is essential to the process of getting to know our mind and appreciating that our ‘I’ is the independent ‘witness’ of the stream of thoughts. We also strengthen our will power, by persevering with our practices regardless of the inner suggestions.
We cannot hope to escape from a prison unless we know something of its layout. And we should never feel that this increasing familiarity with our own mental activity is a minus: it is the first insight we need in order to proceed on our journey to freedom. Besides, the mind—that is, our thoughts—are never as uncontrollable as we may first imagine. As in any other sphere of cultural development, through practice things will change, and without practice they will not change. Hence the importance of practice.
The meditation texts of Yoga reflect the beauty and profundity of the supreme truth, and lead our mind from its present atmosphere of unrest, to the peace of the true Self. One such text is:
I WITHDRAW MY CONSCIOUSNESS FROM THE SENSES AND THE MIND
AND REST IN THE PEACE AND BLISS OF MY TRUE SELF
The transformative power of such a text is much stronger than the weak force of casual thoughts and even of our transient emotions. Our true nature is the unchanging transcendent principle indicated in this sentence. Thoughts and emotions are things that pass, and usually pass quickly.
A complementary practice is, inwardly, to stand back, view our mental movements as an uninvolved observer, and when a thought holds our attention, to break the spell by affirming: ‘OM. You are an illusion. I do not want you. I will not follow you. OM.’ In this way allow the stream of thoughts to pass on, as it will if we stay calm and detached.
So we have a choice in the inner realm of our thoughts and feelings. We can either surrender ourselves to the stream of uncontrolled mental activity as if we are identified with it, or we can learn how to sit back and rest in our deeper Self, or, alternatively, intervene and turn the inner currents in a helpful direction.
In order to prove to ourselves the awakening power of Yoga, something more is needed. This is our constant exposure to teachings that come from an authorised source: either the authentic words of the illumined sages in the classics, or a centre where the traditional teachings are given impersonally and in a spirit of universality.
The material we listen to affects us more deeply than the inputs coming from our other senses. If possible, let us listen to words that appeal to our higher nature—our eternal Self—and which turn our attention inwards to the mind’s source. This process of hearing, followed by reflecting on the teachings, gives us a clearer idea of the path and its goal: liberation through Self-realization.
The philosophy behind Yoga, Advaita Vedanta, reveals to us that we do not need to add anything to our nature in order to know ultimate Truth. At the deepest level of our being, we are already enlightened. But our wrong affirmations, our negative thoughts, our trust and reliance on the world for joy and fulfilment, make us forget the ever-enlightened nature of our innermost Self. Let us adopt a deeper understanding of ourselves, accompanied by an affirmative frame of mind, so that we will be well equipped to face the challenge of the inner transformation, and well prepared for its final revelation.
Our spiritual awakening is an awakening to what we really are here and now, once the preparations, involving faith, practice and enquiry, have been seriously and adequately undertaken. Every human life is infinitely worth while because each life is rooted in the Godhead. The practice of spiritual enquiry will help us detect the everlasting presence of this ground of Being, and realize it as the true Self, transcending individuality and personality.
In one of his songs, Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, points to the extreme nearness of our goal, and also to the need for practice.
Yoga is not the shaven head.
Yoga is not wandering from place to place.
Yoga is not the ability to look at the tip of one’s nose.
The Lord dwells in the collyrium on your eyes.
You reach the goal by practice and not by talk.
He is called a Yogi who sees the One in all.
Such a sentiment has power to remove the coverings of ignorance and to dissolve the obstacles to our awakening to the supreme Truth.