This post is a follow-up to my last post on Spiritual Relativism. I’ll be more direct here on why a parampara is important and hope that readers can understand where I’m coming from – and respond to points of offense. I’ll also note that this is focused on spiritual relativism/spiritual exploration as relevant to the yoga world, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as that is where most of my relevant experience lies.
The positive qualities I’ve seen in some of my “spiritual relativist” friends are gained through experimentation. One may call it inquiry, one may call it exploration, but at root it’s experimentation with teachings, texts, and practices from a variety of traditions, more often than not found in an already-modified form in the yoga or interfaith worlds. I’m not dismissing these borrowed teachings and practices; I think the yoga world and the interfaith world are great ways to get an introduction to new paradigms of faith and new experiences of being-ness. But if we’re going to be serious about our personal development, let alone spiritual development, we have to go beyond this.
Why? There are a few reasons, paired with reasons that someone might be a spiritual explorer in the first place. For those interested in having a better life, there needs to be dedicated practice and study of yoga asanas and their accompanying practices, or dedicated pursuit of writing and talk therapy, or dedicated pursuit of a healthy veg*n diet and jogging, or whatever. This is personal development in the material world for the goal of having a happier, more balanced, more enjoyable life. But it takes dedication and even sacrifice to move towards that. You know how in those self-help books about weight loss it says you need regimented and reasonable dieting and exercise over a given period of time to produce change, and a change in diet and exercise levels overall beyond this intensive period? It’s the same in personal development. Occasional yoga classes, massage therapy, less meat-eating or even full veg*nism, etc are not going to produce long-lasting changes. There need to be initial experimentation and exploration, yes, but there also need to be dedication and commitment with goals of personal development in mind.
The same holds true for spiritual development – or even more so. I’m contrasting the goal of spiritual development with personal development because focusing on spiritual development does not mean you’re trying to have an enjoyable life. It means you’re making sacrifices materially speaking, cutting back on what you do for yourself, with a higher goal in mind. They say “where the attention goes, the energy flows.” If your focus is on yourself, no matter how often you meditate or chant mantras or go to yoga or whatever, then you’ll get personal development. That’s great, but if you want spiritual development, you have to look for a purpose outside of yourself. And honestly, it can’t be this nebulous Greater Power or Good of Mankind or Inner Light. Real spiritual practice needs a clear external focus. This provides a grounding, something to relate to, and something to dedicate your sacrifices to. (I’m talking about God here – Ishvara Krishna, God/Allah/Yahweh or, if you prefer, ishta-devata.) It also requires a tradition or lineage to build a framework of positive examples, guidance, and opportunities for service.
I’m emphasizing these because it’s clarity of focus; clarity of teachings passed down; clarity of positive association, guidance, and examples; and clarity of commitment that enable spiritual growth. Clarity of focus on the Divine in a specific form enables the development of a real relationship, a source of joy, and a resting place for suffering. Clarity of teachings passed down enables the development of a clear understanding of one’s position in the world and in relationship to the Divine, and the transmission of wisdom and grace. Clarity of association enables spiritual relationships based on trust and sincerity. This can be best explained by using a rather technical term, sadhu-sanga. Sadhu-sanga, or association with saintly persons, is defined as association with those who are like-minded, who are more advanced, and who have a caring relationship with one. We all rely on our friends to some extent, but sadhu-sanga is really, really important. I’ll get to the final element, clear commitment, a little later.
As I wrote in my last post, I know several people who remain more or less spiritual explorers and who do have wisdom, insight, compassion, patience, and a good level of presence. (Some spiritual explorers have a lot of these virtues; some do not. Some religious people do; some do not, despite so much instruction on the matter already! I’m fortunate to associate mostly with those in both categories who do.) A fallen soul like me can learn a lot from them.
But I also feel sad for them sometimes. Those with whom I’m lucky to be close enough to speak intimately have shared with me the inner emptiness and feeing of being lost that they feel in their darker moments. Being grounded in relationship to the Divine according to the parameters established above is the only “antidote” for the essential feeling of being lost and alone that we all come into the world with. We’ll all have this feeling from time to time – but I honestly don’t know how people who have not surrendered to a faith tradition can get out of it. I don’t understand and have yet to see how people who have not begun the process of surrender to guru, God, and parampara can find deep spiritual meaning and purpose in their own lives, much less in the big picture. If you don’t have the faith and concomitant experience to demonstrate how precious your soul is in relationship to the Divine, how can you really argue against the harsh inner critic that makes you think you’re full of emptiness and totally alone? If you don’t have faith in a Divine source, in the teachings of your tradition, and in the efficacy of your practices, how can you make the sacrifices in your life to pursue them seriously?
If you really want to know what I think that I have that my spiritual explorer friends don’t have, it’s this: faith. Faith in a Divine Source, the Creator, Maintainer, and Controller of all that exists. (Including my little life.) Faith that whatever happens, Krishna will be there with more love and support than I could ever imagine or understand. Faith in my teachers and the wisdom they’ve received. Faith in the veracity of shastra (sacred texts) and the explication of shastra given by the teachers in our lineage. Faith that supports my daily practices and sacrifices. Faith that I’m on the right path.
My argument for surrender and commitment may sound a little extreme. I’m not saying that surrender is easy or a one-time thing, or that people who don’t take this process of gradual surrender in relationship to experiences of faith don’t have anything going for them. But if they want to get anywhere, they need to seriously consider this proposition. I haven’t been around spirituality for a long time, but I think others who have will back up this claim. I’ve met quite a few deeply realized spiritual practitioners and teachers who are part of a bona fide tradition and lineage. I have not seen any spiritual explorers, self-made gurus if you will, who are on the same level. (Though they may market themselves that way.) If you want to get there, you have to take on the challenge of surrender and commitment. It may seem strange to equate the two, but I think I’m justified in doing so. Commitment is the more austere-sounding word; surrender can only come from the heart. The process of surrender starts with exploration, for sure; but it is enabled by gradually putting one’s faith in a spiritual community and in its teachings, by taking on the practices and austerities called for, and by positive experiences of that faith.
We’re lucky that modern Western culture has accepted so many different practices and philosophies that promote holistic health and personal transformation. Western culture also promotes dabbling and cherry-picking of whatever practices and philosophies complement our lifestyles. If we seriously seek personal transformation and spiritual development – if we seriously seek to dedicate ourselves to higher principles and higher purposes – then we need to seriously seek for a spiritual tradition to align ourselves with.