To each temperament there is one road which seems the most desirable. But the way is not found by devotion alone, by religious contemplation alone, by ardent progress, by self-sacrificing labor, by studious observation of life. None alone can take the disciple more than one step onward. All steps are necessary to make up the ladder. — Light on the Path, p. 5
Inner growth, spiritual evolution, awakening: what do these really mean? Bookstores feature dozens of self-improvement books, and workshops and seminars abound on everything from overcoming anxiety to psychic powers. Over the last century much has changed in artistic expression, social trends, technology, health consciousness, and even in fundamental science. There is a growing restlessness, an attempt to break free of present boundaries and reach for something felt which cannot be defined.
With people beginning to explore what is beyond matter, there is naturally confusion about what is spiritual. Many are attracted to the glitter of psychism, equating phenomena or new-age practices with spirituality. While there are certain warning signs — charging money, appearing too easy, or claims of being the only way — seeking to force the awakening of latent powers can be especially hazardous. Because there are very real dangers, discernment is essential. A quality of our intuition, discernment complements our intellectual faculties. The intellect, while essential, can be deceived as long as we are operating out of our lower nature: we see what we want to see. Intuition, on the other hand, is impersonal and therefore clear and direct. In evaluating situations we can try to observe our motives accurately, and if we feel hesitation or have strong emotions, we can be sure that it is something appealing to our desire nature rather than to our intuition.
As humans going through the learning process we will inevitably make mistakes. What we now think important may suddenly become not so important years down the road. Personality, tendencies, desires, all the things we identify as us, are merely the imperfect reflection or shadow of the spiritual being we essentially are. Our higher self is already enlightened, but for most of us this is like a far-off flickering from a watchtower amidst a turbulent sea of passions and a dense fog of illusions. We may actually be closer to the shore than we think, but because we are such poor captains, with our crew running amok on deck and the vessel being tossed by the waves, it may seem as though we are thousands of miles away. Of course, it's not really a matter of distance but of perception. We are oneness, caught up in the illusion of separateness, drifting about in an illusory existence where we don't see things for what they are, a world of metaphor where all forms are but veiled expressions of the unknowable source.
Raising ourselves above personal attachment is the work of ages, and ultimately there are no shortcuts. So we must attempt to look honestly at the person we see in the mirror each morning, recognizing our weaknesses without dwelling on them or giving ourselves excuses. Once we assume responsibility for ourselves, we realize that life itself is the path and that it is through our day-to-day experiences and challenges that we learn and grow. We live in a universe where nothing can remain still or the same. Not a year, day, or even an hour from now, are we the same. Yet how many of us, when faced with challenge or uncertainty, cling to the familiar and comfortable even when the natural flow of life beckons us to expand our range of experience? We must continually develop through our efforts, rather than retreating to a familiar experience which cannot be repeated because it becomes diminished — we have already learned it.
To live seeking one pleasure after another, while avoiding as much pain as possible, is to cultivate a void which cannot be filled. We all know examples of those who suddenly achieve worldly success but are agonizing because they find the emptiness in all of it. Some turn to drugs or alcohol in a futile attempt to intensify or numb experience, but the inner self cannot be touched no matter how much we indulge in outer pleasures. It's like trying to fool a banker with monopoly money. Rather than disregarding our pains, pleasures, emotions, and desires, we can realize that they are our teachers. Through lifetime after lifetime, we must eventually learn their lessons or be left behind on the evolutionary path.
In an infinite universe, why do we feel so restricted at times? Generally we are not really thinking, we are mentally asleep — not because we are incapable but because at this stage most of our thoughts are mechanical. Habits are the energies or living entities required to perform even the simplest tasks, and yet their grip can color our perceptions and rob us of growth when new opportunities arise. Assuming we can recognize our poorer tendencies and patterns, how can we overcome them? Those habits which have a strong momentum behind them take more than mere intellectual recognition to break. Every moment we are attracting or building up energy which reflects the nature of our thoughts. We are what we think. Does it make sense to spend a certain hour each day meditating if throughout the rest of the day we are reinforcing the very tendencies we are trying to overcome? We can, however, direct steady change by contemplating positive, lofty thoughts throughout the day. Whether working or lying in bed at night, if we try to hold thoughts of compassion and altruism, our consciousness attracts corresponding energies. With consistency our mind gradually shifts in a way that has nothing to do with our worldly affairs. One may have duties and responsibilities that demand routine, yet each day, if we observe the subtle life, a gem may be found in every moment.
Sometimes we may feel we are victims of unfortunate circumstances beyond our control, failing to realize that none other than ourself set all of these in motion. But nothing in the universe, on whatever scale, happens randomly. From the events in our everyday lives to wars between nations, all begin with our thoughts or consciousness. The universe works in spite of our inability to trace the causes woven in the underlying dynamics. If we have firm belief that what we reap we must have sown, we realize that this existence is not a random, chaotic mess and can learn to accept what comes to us without need for justification. Self-justification hinders our progress because it shows we falsely believe that we are not responsible.
All of the great civilizations have risen to a peak of power and glory, only to decline. Why is this growth not sustainable? Could it be because they have attained all that they could envision for that time and place? "Where there is no vision, the people perish." But in every age and culture there are those exceptional few who have a broader vision: sages and preservers of the sacred universal wisdom. If we do not wish to repeat the mistakes of the past, we must begin with philosophy — not just reading and speculating, but making an earnest effort to live it. Every thought, every act, has a rippling effect which modifies the destinies of all. Let's not wait till tomorrow, but strive to do our best at all times, for an opportunity missed may not return under such favorable circumstances.
Transformation is an ongoing process, and often only in retrospect do we realize that our vision has expanded. Still, manifestation implies finiteness, and all beings have their own illusions: it would be a fatal mistake to assume that our spiritual vision is ever 20/20. Even Buddhas and Christs do not represent the pinnacle of evolutionary achievement, though they represent the greater heights which all human beings are capable of. Though we may stumble along the way, not even what we label as failures are a waste in the broader sense. As we grow, our perception grows, and as our perception grows, our options grow. As it says in Light on the Path:
For within you is the light of the world — the only light that can be shed upon the path. If you are unable to perceive it within you, it is useless to look for it elsewhere. It is beyond you; because when you reach it you have lost yourself. It is unattainable, because it forever recedes. You will enter the light, but you will never touch the flame. — p. 4
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)