Progress by Practice
This is a path of baby steps.
It is human nature to want to do everything the easy way. What do they say about taking the path of least resistance? It seems to be built into our DNA, as though our genes were imprinted with ‘survival of the laziest’.
Isn’t it amazing that with our entire lives of experiencing that practice makes perfect, for some unknown reason many of us believe that at the time of initiation we will immediately hear the sound current and behold the vision of the Radiant Form of the Master. Where did we get that idea? It just simply does not follow the laws of nature.
The question we ask is why is it so difficult? Why does it take so much practice to make spiritual progress? Why can’t we play par golf without practicing, bowl a perfect 300, paint like Da Vinci, write like Edgar Allen Poe, do math like Einstein or drive a car like Mario Andretti? Why, oh why, do we have to practice in order to succeed?
What is it that holds us back? What causes us to fail? In physical activities, it is usually a mixture of poor technique, a lack of coordination and gravity. Gravity is the part that hurts. Gravity is also the thing that provides resistance. It is the thing we are trying to overcome. Without resistance our muscles would atrophy. Without the resistance of the wind, airplanes wouldn’t fly and parachutes wouldn’t open. Without the resistance of water, boats wouldn’t float. It is resistance that makes us stronger. It is resistance that we are trying to avoid when we take ‘the path of the least of it’.
In meditation, the resistance is our own mind. Overcoming our mind is the greatest challenge of all time. Climbing to the top of Mount Everest is nothing compared to conquering our mind. The ascent of our attention, our consciousness, to the heights beyond the mind was compared by Maharaj Sawan Singh to an ant trying to climb out of a jar. The ant makes a little progress and slides down again. It makes more progress only to slide down over and over and over again. But the ant never gives up, and one day it makes it to the top. It only makes it by its constant effort. If it just sat at the bottom of the jar, it would never make it to the top unless someone turned the jar upside down, which is what we all want Master to do for us.
The daunting task of reaching the summit at the eye centre, the threshold of our spiritual journey, is beautifully described in The Book of Mirdad. Mirdad provides the analogy of climbing a flint mountain to represent the journey of our meditation up the slippery slope of our mind. It is the initial stages of our meditation where the climb to the top begins. We have to be on the mountain or the guide can’t help us. Along the path the guide makes sure our load is lightened. We lose our illusory provisions and are stripped of our veils of mind and matter – our ego. This process occurs on the mountain, not in the valley of the world. It also occurs on the mountain after we have taken many, many baby steps, after our hands have bled and we have tumbled down the slope a few times. If we are not even on the mountain, how do we expect Master, the guide, to lift us up?
In order to fly in an airplane to a far land, we must first get on the plane. We can only catch a plane at the airport, not at the mall, or at the theatre, or in front of our TV or in bed. We have to be at the airport – we have to be on the mountain.
Our role is to get there. To get to the airport we have to find a shuttle, a taxi or drive ourselves if necessary. If we drive, we have to find a place to park, then catch a shuttle bus from the parking lot to the terminal. Then we still have to drag our luggage to the check-in counter, then to the area where our suitcases are x-rayed, then up to security so we can be searched some more. All of this is the small part we have to play in order to get on the plane. And if we really want to take the trip badly enough, then it’s ok even if we arrive at the boarding gate crawling on all fours. Our role is to just get there; someone, Master, will help us to our seat.
Master is working behind the scenes, helping us to get to the airport – it’s he who guides us up to the summit of the flint slope. It’s our unseen Master who helps us catch the parking lot shuttle going to the correct terminal. It’s he who is smiling through us, so the security personnel thinks twice about holding us up to inspect our carry-on. It’s all these things that happen during our journey through life that we don’t see. But, again, we have to make the effort. We can’t expect Master to pack our suitcase for us.
Baba Ji once said something to the effect that, if we only knew what the inner Master does for us, we would be filled with an inexpressible gratitude.
It is Shabd, the divine melody, which performs the gigantic feat of pulling us out of the void of the airport terminal and into the light of self-and God-realization. It is never really our own efforts. But the paradox is that we have to be putting in the effort of daily meditation, the effort of climbing on hands and feet up the slope, in order to catch hold of the sound current.
Thirty, forty years go by, and we feel like we are the same. But if we reflect, we may be surprised to find that just maybe we are more tolerant than we were before, more loving, less prone to anger or judgment of others. Maybe our outward desires and ambitions are more subdued, and we find ourselves thinking more and more about Master and less and less about the world. If so, how can we say we haven’t made spiritual progress?
Our spiritual progress is directly related to simran, the repetition of the names. Simran creates a vibration within us which links us to the Radiant Form of the Master, the Shabd form. Simran acts like a small pickaxe, removing one particle of rust, attachment, pride and ego at a time. It removes all the clutter in our heart which is so full of the objects and desires of the world that there is no room for Master and Shabd to make their home there. Before Shabd takes up abode in our heart, we must polish it clean. Our heart must be pure and worthy. Scrubbing off the muck, one round of simran after the other, day in and day out, purifies our hearts.
Doing simran is how we pay attention to our inner life. Daily meditation for the full two and a half hours is the effort we put in to get to the airport. It’s what keeps us strapped in our seat ready for take off. Master makes sure the plane climbs in altitude very gently. Sometimes we don’t even notice that we have left the runway.
A satsangi once compared the state of not realizing our own spiritual progress to a log she noticed one evening in her campfire. In the morning, she was struck with how all the other logs, from the previous night’s fire, had turned to ashes except this one particular log. How strange, she thought, that this log, that had earlier glowed bright red, was still intact and looked no different than it did before the fire started. Curious, she poked at the log with a stick and it simply blew away. It was a log of ashes held together in its original form only by habit or because it had not yet realized the fire had transformed it. Maybe it was too mesmerized by the heat of the sound current. Maybe it was not its time to leave until the ‘angel of death by poking stick’ called to it. The ashes, that were once the log, flew into the atmosphere and simply merged into the universe. It became one with the ‘Great Campfire’.
We may not notice the transforming heat of the sound current. We may even complain about our perceived lack of spiritual progress. But one day for certain, we will get the poke and we, our ego-selves, will vanish and be blissfully consumed by the fire of God’s love.
If you can only crawl, crawl to Him.
If you cannot pray sincerely, offer your dry, hypocritical, agnostic prayer; for God in His mercy accepts bad coin.
If you have a hundred doubts of God, make them into ninety doubts. This is the way.
O, Seeker! Though you have broken your vows a hundred times, come again! come again!…
The Rumi Collection, edited by Kabir Helminski