Integrating Spiritual and Materialistic Ways of Life

Spirituality and Spiritual Practice

by Jayaram V

Few people are interested in a subject like spiritual life and much fewer would be willing to spend the rest of their lives in its pursuit. If this discussion is about dating or attracting the opposite sex, or about ghosts and witches, it would receive more attention and interest than about a subject like spiritualism. Do you know what spiritual books and articles receive wider attention? Books on tantra and the so called spiritual sex. Do you know what is the most widely read Indian scripture in the world?

It is not the Yogasutra but the Kamasutra. Not many people are interested in spiritual life or ready for it. Those who want to pursue the spiritual path are not sure what is going to happen to them down the road and where they will end up. If you believe that you have genuine spiritual aspiration, please examine your motives. Are you interested in spiritual life because you genuinely want to know who you are or because you just want to dabble with it, as many do, out of sheer boredom or frustration with your current situation?

Spiritual life is a life of hardship. It does not offer you any rewards except the reward of salvation at the end of a hard struggle. It does not promise you happiness, but setbacks and failures. There are hardly any incentives for people to dedicate themselves completely to spiritual life. On this path you have to minimize and negate your egoistic self and let go of your personal preferences and comforts, without expecting any appreciation or approval in the process. You have to chip away your personal identity to become established in your inmost self and learn to think about success and failure differently because what you consider as success in the material life may be actually a failure in the spiritual realm and vice versa.

Since it is very difficult to commit oneself fully to the spiritual life, people satisfy their spiritual aspiration by indulging in the illusion of being spiritual in many different ways, such as organizing spiritual events or activities, performing rites and rituals, following a spiritual guru, visiting frequently the places of worship, promoting one's own faith and so on. Since it is difficult to overcome our old habits, our materialistic attitude seeps into our spiritual lives and manifests itself in the form of fanaticism and communalism. These things happen, when you pursue spiritual practice without corresponding inner transformation.

While the world appreciates superficial spiritual engagement, the real and genuine spiritual effort mostly goes unnoticed. You will hardly receive any encouragement from people, if you want to renounce the world and lead a dedicated spiritual life. Your friends and family will feel aghast and do everything in their capacity to discourage you. Some may even think that you have lost your mind or come under the influence of a cult. Such negative responses are normal and expected, especially in the present-day society, when you deviate from the approved norms of social behavior. A majority of people are just this worldly and the sight of a spiritual person is just disturbing or even annoying as the sight of a bear or a monkey that has escaped from the zoo.

From Nature's perspective, every spiritual aspirant is an aberration, who needs to be tested in the crucible of life before he or she is accepted or discarded. Ask people to come and join you in your spiritual journey and they will look at you as if you are stuck with leprosy. Tell the world that you are a spiritual person and the world will either draw a circle around you and treat you as a special person or build a wall of indifference around you and keep you isolated forever. Of course, there is also a high probability that people may fall at your feet and seek your blessings, if they are convinced that you have acquired supernatural powers.

There is no doubt that dedicated spiritual life is not for the timid or the weak hearted. It is neither for the sick nor for the materially ambitious and covetous. You need a lot of courage and conviction to follow the spiritual percepts enshrined in our scriptures, especially if you happen to be young and in the prime of your life. Spiritual life is not absolutely necessary for living upon earth. But, you are never complete without it. You may miss many things in your life, if you focus your energies entirely upon securing material things. In a limited way, materialistic life is necessary for our happiness and the continuity of our traditions and institutions. It is necessary to fulfill our individual and family responsibilities and keep the wheels of life and society running. But if you get involved with it too deeply, you may hurt yourself and the chances of your salvation.

The phrase, "spiritual life," is used here to denote a way of life in which you do not live for yourself but for the sake of the spirit or the self that is hidden in you, identifying yourself completely with it. Your definition of spiritualism may not be the same. For some, spiritualism means being interested in ghosts, medium ships, séances and so on. For some it means leading a contemplative and virtuous life, without the compulsion to believe in God or acknowledge His presence or involvement. Whatever may be your approach, here it is used in the sense of living for the sake of and with the soul as the center of our being and awareness.

In western traditions, you will find a clear dichotomy between spiritual and materialistic ways of life. It is not so in eastern traditions, especially in Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism is rightly called a way of life, because it advocates a God centric life in which we are expected to integrate our materialistic and spiritual aspirations around a central purpose, which is attaining liberation (moksha) from the cycle of births and deaths. Although Buddhism does not believe in the existence of God, it projects a way of life in which the practice of Eightfold Path is an important and essential component. Both the religions uphold a holistic way of life, in which you are slowly and gradually drawn to spiritual life, while performing your obligatory duties and your day to day responsibilities. Both the religions agree that till you are ready for complete renunciation, you should lead a responsible and virtuous life, preparing yourself the next stage of your liberation.

It is not difficult to lead a holistic way of life, which is complete and in which you will have ample opportunities to fulfill both your material and spiritual aspirations. It is not necessary that to lead a spiritual life you need to become a monk or an ascetic. You can be whoever you want to be and yet spiritual, because that is your essential nature. You may think that you are a physical entity, but almost every religion declares that you are a spiritual being. You don't have to seek salvation in some faraway place. You don't have to go too far to find peace in your heart. You don't have to find God in some glacial cave. You can find Him wherever you are, through the things that you seek and the actions that you perform. To lead a holistic life, you need awareness, sincerity, commitment and sensitivity to the deeper and not so apparent aspects of life. You need to be mindful and attentive to what is going on around you and inside you. You need to train your mind and the senses, and change your mindset, to discern the reality that is hidden and not so obvious. The following suggestions are useful to increase your self-awareness and cultivate the qualities that are essential to lead a divine centric and holistic life. Holistic means, you consider every aspect of your personality, not just your mind and body to resolve the problem of your life and work for your salvation.

Contemplate upon death

By nature we like to think about life and avoid thinking about death because there is no real joy or comfort in thinking about death and there is no reason why we have to think about it all the time. However, on the spiritual path, you have to think about death occasionally to understand its implications and to overcome your fear of death. By contemplating upon death and its various aspects, you not only become familiar with it but also develop a balanced state of mind, whereby you will learn to put things in proper perspective and deal with them accordingly. Contemplation upon death helps you realize the impermanence of life and accept things as they are.

Identify yourself with your inmost self

Remind yourself constantly that you are the inmost self, not the mind and the body which you usually believe yourself to be. Fix your attention on the formless and invisible emptiness inside you and consider that to be your real self. When you assume this new identity, you will overcome your attachment with your form and develop witness consciousness whereby you will see the world, the people and yourself with greater clarity, objectivity, dispassion and tolerance.

Extend your vision

It is human nature to focus on the current reality and view your problems and circumstances in the context of your present life. This restricted view of your life makes you more selfish and self-centered and your problems more challenging and overwhelming. But your entire thinking and attitude will change as you begin to consider yourself as an eternal soul, who has been living upon earth for several lifetimes and who has gone through the same trials and tribulations several times repeatedly in the past. When you stretch your thinking from the immediate to the infinite and from your physical existence to your spiritual existence, your vision expands and your will think differently about everything that touches your life. You will treat others with more respect and understanding, as you realize that every living being upon earth is as ancient as the universe itself and possess the same self that resides in you.

Accept the impermanence of the world

We know the impermanence of the world in which we live. But, for one reason or the other, most of the time we tend to ignore it mentally and try to hold on to our possession forever. It does not make sense why for many lifetimes we keep hurting ourselves for things that do not last forever. When we build our lives around things that are impermanent, we are bound to suffer from the pain of loss, failure, disappointment and discontentment. It is therefore necessary that you approach life with caution and with the awareness that in life you can take nothing for granted and that impermanence is an essential and integral part of your life and experiences.

Think of God constantly

It is difficult to define God and much more difficult to relate with Him all the time. In spiritual life, you need to have a clear idea of who God is and what you can expect from Him. Our scriptures declare Him to be the real Doer and the center of everything that exists. Every scripture that is based upon God's revelations, declares that devotion to God is the key to attain liberation. According to the Bhagavadgita, the path of devotion is the best of all spiritual paths. So invite God into your life and surrender to Him with love devotion. Seek his help in whatever you do and offer Him all your actions and possessions. In the initial phases, you may encounter some resistance in doing it. But with practice and through prayers, you can gradually open your heart to God and feel His presence in your life.

Cultivate the friendship of spiritual people

The best way to sustain your spiritual fervor is to remain in the company of spiritual people and seek their help. When you interact with spiritual people regularly, it will be easier for your to remain focused on your spiritual goals and continue your spiritual practice. Find people whose hearts are pure and whose minds are filled with the thoughts of God. Finding such people is in itself a great blessing. Keep in touch with them and learn from them constantly with humility, love and understanding. Help them in whatever you can, without assuming superiority. If you are unable to find spiritual people whom you can trust, spend time reading spiritual books or listening to the speeches of spiritual masters. If you can do even that, listen to the devotional music and let the thoughts of devotion fill your heart and mind.

Practice meditation

Meditation sets in motion a series of changes in your mind and body and takes you closer to your inner self. Through meditation you develop sensitivity and openness towards everything that resides in the field of your awareness and perception and gain control over your thoughts, desires and impulses. Contemplative approach is bound to make you more thoughtful, sensitive and attentive towards yourself and others. It will help you penetrate deeper into your consciousness and know who you are or examine the various truths about your life and the religious doctrines in which you believe. In fact meditation is the best way to remain connected with both the spiritual and material aspects of your life and remain balanced. So practice meditation regularly and give yourself a chance to experience inner quietness, stability and balance. And learn to meditate in all circumstances and with least preparation, even with your eyes are wide open.

Cultivate virtue

Spiritual life is built on the foundation of purity (sattva) and morality. It is impossible to be spiritual, if you are not willing to discipline yourself and stay on the right side of things. These qualities are enumerated in all the religious scriptures. There is a reason why morality is important for spiritual practice. If you are not determined to eliminate all the impurities from your mind and body through austerities and self-discipline, you may open yourself to a number of temptations on the path and become vulnerable to the negative forces and evil tendencies that exist in all of us in a latent form, awaiting their time and opportunity. So make sure that you spend enough time to cultivate virtues and practice morality.

Pay attention to the events in your life

Learn to observe life in all its hues and colors, with dispassion and attentiveness. Pay attention to your physical movements, your thoughts, feelings, emotions, desires, motives, actions and reactions. Pay attention to others, their thoughts, emotions, actions and responses. Through observation, you will learn to live with awareness and see things as they are. You will perceive the truth hidden behind the masks people wear and the illusions we build around ourselves.

Focus on the task rather than the result

When you are performing your actions, do not think about the result but the task which needs to be done. Perform your actions with complete focus and in the best manner possible, leaving the results to God. Technically speaking, you have no control over any result, but only on your actions or your performance. You may improve the chances of your success through effort, but there is no guarantee that your actions will aways produce the same result. So focus you attention on doing rather than winning and on the process or the procedure rather than the outcome. Think of what you can do to improve your performance or perfect your skills. Focus on "how" rather than "whether".

Stop defending yourself

It is one thing to defend yourself when your survival is threatened and another to defend yourself for every trivial reason. It is not necessary that you have to be approved by everyone or your opinions have to be accepted by everyone. Live with a sense of freedom and without the obligation to be right or correct all the time. Give a chance to others to be who they are. Do not react to the comments and judgments people pass against you.

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