Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A Question on Spiritual Practice

Here is a question which goes to the heart of the matter.

Q. Can you tell me what your Masters' chief recommendations were in terms of spiritual practice? I currently meditate for half an hour a day but would like to know if that is sufficient on its own or if there is more I could be doing.

A.  When the Masters spoke to me they did so in the particular rather than generally. What I mean by that is that they were addressing my specific needs and deficiencies and not giving a universal teaching to be followed by all. Having said that, it's not hard to extract a general teaching from their words because the needs of one soul are not greatly different from the needs of any other. We may all have our own individual points of weakness but the business of rising above identification with and dominance by the lower self or ego is pretty much the same for all of us.  So I can tell you what they emphasised with regard to spiritual practice.

There were no revelations. The path to God is quite well known and, although many seek short cuts or take diversions, and some stress one aspect and some another, it doesn't really vary and its arduousness cannot be dodged.

The essence of spiritual practice is purification of the lower self so that the soul may be able to receive grace without which there is no spirituality. The lower self is that in which are seated (and which, in a certain sense, is formed of) our attachments, prejudices, fears, greed, pride, desire for praise and power and so on, and it is from these that we must seek purification. The first step in that process is to actually acknowledge them but the good news is that the very awareness of them is the solvent that eventually leads to their dissolution. So we must begin the process, but we cannot conclude it. We can never make ourselves spiritual (a contradiction in terms since it is when we are not), but we can (and must for it won't happen by itself) fit ourselves to become pure vessels for the light of grace so that our individual consciousness may become one with divine consciousness. Or, in the Masters' words, we must forget the personal self and all that relates to it before we can merge with the Universal Self. Note that it is not enough to think that we already are the Universal Self and we just have to become cognizant of the fact. That may be the case on an absolute level and in potentia, but it is not the case in terms of what we are now. We have to work to reach the point at which we can truly know ourselves to be what we really are. It requires time to know eternity.

Merging with the universal self does not mean that individuality is lost but that the sense of separateness is overcome. The personal self is our image of ourself. It is our sense of ourself as a separate being. So when we say forget the personal self we are not saying forget individuality, still less deny it, but forget self-image. Your ego is not your individual identity. It is your perception of yourself as a separate individual and the attachments and desires you have that arise from that. True freedom comes with the release from identification with the self-image. It is stepping out of the boundaries and limitations which that self-image creates

Before we reach this culminating point, though, our immediate objective should be the awakening of the mind in the heart. This is often referred to as intuition though that is a potentially misleading term since it has nothing to do with the instinctual reaction to impressions received through the physical and emotional parts of our nature. Rather it is a transcendent supra-rational knowing by being that is a direct seeing into reality, and which completely bypasses what we commonly experience as the mind, the reasoning, head-centred, classifying, analysing faculty that perceives wholes in terms of their parts and which works in and through time. Intuition is the mirror that reflects Divine Intelligence and is that function in us which perceives truth directly: independent of reason, opinion, theory and without any calculation or effort. It is like a beam of light that illumines whatever it touches. In itself intuition is pure, perfect and incapable of error but our ability to respond to it is not and may need to be checked until we have reached the stage at which we are sufficiently detached from prejudice, preconception and preference to know what truly is intuition and what we may call that but in fact derives from or is coloured by the personal level.

The Masters' chief recommendations as regards spiritual practice were meditation and prayer, both of which they insisted were important for the serious aspirant. The disciple must become sensitive to the spiritual plane and this principally happens in silence. So meditation is the silencing of the mind: its withdrawal into stillness. But this is not just a question of making the mind empty. An empty mind can give the appearance of being in a spiritual state and it may be, after a fashion. But this purely passive consciousness will not necessarily lead to the blossoming of active spiritual qualities, in particular love, and the positive integration of the human and divine parts of our nature which is the true spiritual goal. It is for this reason that the Masters recommended meditation in the heart rather than the head. An empty head is still a head. To be focused in an empty mind is still to be focused in the mind.

So the Masters advised me to concentrate on the heart during meditation. By this they did not mean the heart chakra but something more fundamental. (Incidentally their attitude to all the chakras was that these should be left alone to open naturally, as and when prompted by inner spiritual development, rather than by the direction of mental energy towards them which might stimulate but could not bring about ordered growth.) What they alluded to here was the spiritual heart which is the centre of our being and the actual locus of spirit in the body. You might argue that spirit is everywhere so how can you restrict it to a particular place? That is theoretically correct but ignores the fact that, as regards our awareness of ourselves as manifested beings, spirit does have a specific location and that is the heart. All traditions confirm this. So to direct your meditation to the heart is to plug yourself into the spiritual source. As you do this seek to become aware of the presence of God which will pervade your being like a soft glow.

You say you meditate but you don't mention prayer. I think many a modern would-be mystic is rather similar to me at the time I first encountered the Masters.  Someone who leans towards the opinion that the personal God, the transcendent Creator, exists only for those still attached to duality, only for those religious types who see themselves as separate from God. But the fact is that we as individuals are separate from or, at least, different from God as God. That is the fact which no amount of philosophising can alter. We are not fundamentally separate, of course, but we are created beings. We are not God even if our being is God's being. And we need the humbling experience of prayeras the Masters put it, to remind us of this and help us remember the Creator. Prayer is how we address God and put ourselves in right relationship with Him.

A quality the Masters stressed as fundamental for anyone engaged in spiritual practice was inner calm. This is detachment from the emotions. Not from feeling but from emotions relating to the personal self and its likes and dislikes, its pleasures and pains and so on. In other words, detachment from the pairs of opposites as they might be reflected in the emotional nature. That doesn't mean that you don't have your own preferences, but you have to learn to keep a balanced approach to both joy and misery and not get carried away by either. You must be like a steady boat, calm and unswayed by happiness or suffering, taking each as it comes and not being attached to the one or rejecting the other. This is something that is relatively easy in a monastic or contemplative environment but becomes noticeably more challenging when one is in a worldly situation. But true calm must always be independent of outer circumstances, and, although it may be difficult, you will find that developing the habit of non-reaction to emotional disturbance, whether positive or negative, will lead to a sense of centredness that remains unruffled in any situation. One way to achieve this desirable state is to realise that everything you experience is transitory, everything passes. Fix yourself in the eternal.

The purpose of any spiritual practice is to develop the awareness of yourself as a being that is in the world but not of it. You need to see yourself as existing in your true nature above (figuratively speaking) the mind, emotions and physical body which together comprise the threefold lower self. Consequently anything that aids in that is good. I would say that meditation and prayer are the principal means but affirmations of one's divine origin, repetitions of God's holy name, concentrated readings of scriptures and sacred books can all help to awaken your sense of who you are and where you come from. You should always see your practice, though, as a means and not as something significant in itself. In other words, don't get attached to spiritual practice or the pleasurable effects that might sometimes arise from it. Nor should you engage in it looking for results. Naturally your practice has a purpose but if you have a goal-centred attitude to it your motive is impure, and right motive is something without which no spiritual practice will bear healthy, ripe fruit. Indeed, in a manner of speaking, right motive is the greater part of any spiritual practice.

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