Changing our Spots
There’s a story told that we could all apply to ourselves: One day some disciples went to their Master and told him they were going on a pilgrimage, so that they could improve their devotion. “Okay,” said the Master. “But please take this karela (a bitter cucumber-like vegetable) along with you, and whichever temple you visit, place it on the altar of the deity, take the blessings and bring it back to me.”
So, not only the disciples but the karela also went on the pilgrimage, from temple to temple. And when they came back, the Master asked them to cook the karela, and serve it to him.
The disciples did what he asked. After his first bite, the Master commented: “Surprising! Even after the pilgrimage, the karela is still bitter. How come?” The disciples answered, “But that’s the very nature of the karela, Master.”
The Master said, “That’s what I am saying. Unless you change your nature, a pilgrimage will not make any difference.”
The story’s message is clear. If we want to heighten our spirituality we have to work on ourselves. We have to disprove the proverb that a leopard cannot change its spots. We have to set about re-inventing ourselves, changing our spots, one by one.
As we are told, our only means for attaining spiritual perfection is concentrated meditation as taught by our living Master. Our first goal is to learn to ‘die while living’ – to pass consciously through the gates of death before the body actually dies. But to achieve that can take a lifetime, because it entails dealing with all the stuff we have accumulated in our mind that prevents concentration. The mind has to be purified of all material inclinations, of all thoughts of self, of everything but the One whom we are seeking. And that is not easy.
It is clear that changing our spots – removing our bad habits and character weaknesses – is a lifelong project.
Fortunately it is a project in which we are not alone. Every step along the path is supported by a highly experienced ‘project manager’, our Master. He is with us every inch of the way, guiding, protecting and moulding us into what we have to become in our quest for spiritual perfection.
We are told we are already one with the Divine, but to become fully convinced of this we need to conduct an experiment within the laboratory of the living body. We do this by entering the spiritual realms – something that can be attained only by concentrated focus at the eye centre. To help us we are also encouraged to repeat our simran at every possible opportunity throughout the day. This will lead to an ongoing awareness of his presence – a presence that can be felt or sensed.
One only has to go for a long walk on a beach or anywhere in quiet surroundings, and silently repeat our simran while we are walking. Our footsteps very quickly fade from our focus as the constant simran becomes more dominant in our minds. Then we may begin to sense his presence, to feel enveloped by his love.
There is nothing more profound and powerful on this plane than his love. It is this force, this Shabd, that governs everything and everyone in the creation. In Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I, Maharaj Charan Singh tells us there is love inside everyone because everyone has a soul. The soul, he says, is a spark of love. But this spark needs to become a fire, and the Masters’ purpose is to ignite this spark of love within each of their disciples to enable the spark to reconnect with its source.
While seeking to become more aware of his love, we can find a wealth of advice and encouragement if we explore the writings of Brother Lawrence, a simple monk who lived in France in the seventeenth century. Brother Lawrence found great comfort and inspiration in nature and its seasonal contrasts and beauty. This affected him so deeply that he gained an awareness of the love of God and strove constantly to walk in his presence. He had a reputation for experiencing profound peace, and visitors came to seek spiritual guidance from him. The wisdom he passed on to them, in conversations and in letters, would later become the basis of his book The Practice of the Presence of God.
This humble monk appeared to have discovered a practical method for living in the presence of God every moment of his life. His experiences could provide some useful ideas on how we, too, can develop our own spiritual awareness. As he advised others:
We must do our business faithfully; without trouble or disquiet, recalling our mind to God mildly, and with tranquillity, as often as we find it wandering from him. … Let us think often that our only business in this life is to please God. Perhaps all besides is but folly and vanity.
This is in line with what we are told about our own meditation. Our simran will come and go because of the distractions of the mind, but when this happens we need to gently bring it back into focus. Hazur often used the analogy of a silk scarf caught up in a thorn bush. If we yank at it impatiently, the scarf will rip, but if we disengage it thorn by thorn, the scarf can be removed undamaged. In the same way we can free ourselves from all worldly distractions if we gently and repeatedly re-engage with our simran.
We have often been told of the importance of thinking about the Master, of being constantly aware of him. Brother Lawrence also speaks in this vein: “In order to know God, we must often think of him; and when we come to love him, we shall then also think of him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.”
Keeping the Lord in focus, being aware of him at all times, will either lead to feeling his presence and enhancing our love for him, or it will bring an all-important longing for his presence. This longing, in itself, will improve our focus during our meditation and pave the way for the realization of our true divine nature.
However, trying to be in the presence of God, while earning our living in the world is not easy. In fact, many may say it is well nigh impossible to maintain any kind of awareness of God or the Master while the tasks of our daily employment demand our attention. Brother Lawrence disagrees. He observes:
The time of business does not differ with me from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were on my knees.
For us too, with simran turning over in our subconscious, the workplace could become a tranquil refuge. Moreover, this could turn any wearisome chore into a pleasure. In the words of Brother Lawrence (which could be the words of our own Master):
We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed. This practice will eventually cause our efforts to become a pleasurable habit, which we can do without thinking.
In another context Brother Lawrence also remarks that God is often nearer to us in sickness than in health. He adds:
The greatest suffering will never appear intolerable when we see in them the hand of God who dispenses them. When we know that it is our loving Father who humiliates and distresses us, our sufferings will lose their bitterness and become even a matter of consolation.
Brother Lawrence goes on to say: “Sufferings will be sweet and pleasant to us while we are with him; and the greatest pleasures will be, without him, a cruel punishment to us.”
Keeping the Lord in focus, being aware of him at all times, whether in our times of suffering or our times of joy, will lead to feeling his presence and enhancing our love for him. Moreover, it will intensify our longing for his presence. This longing, in itself, will improve our focus during our meditation and pave the way for the realization of our true divine nature. And it can arise from the simple practice of remembering him.
If we shatter the chains of egotism, and melt into the ocean of humanity, we share its dignity. To feel that we are something is to set up a barrier between God and ourselves; to cease feeling that we are something is to become one with God. A drop in the ocean partakes of the greatness of its parent, although it is unconscious of it. But it is dried up as soon as it enters upon an existence independent of the ocean.
Mahatma Gandhi as quoted in Mahatma Gandhi – His Life and Times