A committed atheist once said to me in a conversation about beliefs something like: Beliefs seem shallow to me. I trust a loving and caring presence that I have felt in my life since I was very young. I understand love and I trust it, but I do not trust beliefs and faiths because they divide people.
Self-professed atheists may intuitively grasp the essence of spirituality better than self-declared believers, who may change their beliefs when circumstances change. Belief and faith are often understood today as adopting a belief system, a set of concepts on which people rely for confidence, certainty, and identity. But beliefs are easily shaken. On the other hand, trust and faith acquired through experience are harder to shake, for these develop over time within the context of a relationship – with a Master, the Divine, or an unnamed loving presence nurtured through daily meditation and remembrance (simran).
For this atheist, mere belief in God felt superficial, like a label one would hang around one’s neck saying, “I believe,” with emphasis on “I.” Trust, on the other hand, is a product of “we.” Trust involves losing track of the “I.” In trust, we merge into the loving essence of God, even when doubts and confusions compel us to say, “I do not understand; nothing makes sense.”
Platonism and the role of confusion and mystery
Doubts and confusion are beneficial on the spiritual path because they lead the rational, analytical mind into a dead end. Confusion humbles the mind by confronting it with the mystery of life and the realm of personal inner experience. More than a thousand years ago, there was in the West a spiritual path called Platonism. It was based on entering into deeper and deeper levels of unknowing, unlearning, and the confronting of paradoxical impossibilities – a stripping away of unverified beliefs and false certainties. It was a path that prepared people to enter into the mysteries of the One. The founding master of this tradition was Socrates, who transformed those who put their trust in him through a method called, in Greek, aporia (dead end, confusion).
The method did not deliberately try to confuse disciples. Rather, it was about freeing them from conflicting beliefs and undigested knowledge and bringing those contradictions and unexamined beliefs to the surface. People often think they know, when they actually do not. Only when someone challenges their assumptions do they realize their confused state.
This cleansing state of confusion did not aim to make people stupid, but to open them to Mystery, a direct experience of the Divine called enthousiasmos (the inspired state of dwelling within Divine essence). Plato, in his dialogue Phaedrus, called this state divine madness (mania), which is incomprehensible to outside observers because it is out of step with their social and conceptual programming.
The mysterious ways of the intuitive mind that operate outside established codes and programs is becoming evermore rare in our increasingly computerized world. Аs Einstein said in a quote attributed to him: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”1
The programming of the modern mind includes excessive confidence in external knowledge, a belief in its ability to solve problems, and an assumption that one can understand spiritual realities without having experienced them directly. This is in direct contrast to the science of the soul, which leads to enlightenment through confusion and confronting the rational mind with conceptual dead ends. Socrates practised this spiritual science 2,500 years ago, and it is as relevant and necessary today as it was then.
Why? Because, as the contemporary American philosopher Gabriel Marcel states, “We live in a broken world” – one that is “on the one hand, riddled with problems and, on the other, determined to allow no room for mystery.”2 The mysterious and the awe-inspiring unsettle the left-brained tendencies of the modern rational mind. Therefore, it is easier to deny mystery and focus on techniques that attempt to solve problems through analysis and logic.
An alternative is to treat life as a mystery to be experienced. Struggling with a terminal illness, the writer Phillip Simmons chose the second approach:
At its deepest levels Life is not a problem, but a mystery…. Problems are to be solved, true mysteries are not…. Each of us finds his or her own way to mystery. At one time or another, each of us confronts an experience so powerful, bewildering, joyous, or terrifying that all our efforts to see it as a ‘problem’ are futile. Each of us is brought to the cliff’s edge. At such moments we can either back away in bitterness and confusion, or leap forward into mystery. And what does mystery ask of us? Only that we be in its presence, that we fully, consciously, hand ourselves over.… We can participate in mystery only by letting go of solutions.3
Trust and love are two of the greatest mysteries of life, as are suffering and death. We may be able to explain our beliefs or fight for them, but we can never explain why we love someone, or trust a particular person rather than another. While beliefs hold us in a bubble of certainty and make us feel as if we can understand everything through the lens of those beliefs, trust embraces the unknown, the uncertain. It encompasses the mystery of our temporary existence on earth, with all its horror and joy, tragedy and comedy.
We cannot solve mystery; rather our ego dissolves in the face of mystery.
Trust is essential to this dissolving. Where we put our trust and love determines where we go spiritually. The tragedy is that we often trust and desire what is illusory and have lost trust and desire for what is real and therefore most trustworthy. We encase ourselves in illusions to make ourselves comfortable. For example, we somehow believe that suffering is only for those who do not follow a spiritual path, and that if we follow a spiritual path, serious illness, financial disaster, and public disgrace cannot befall us. Those are only some of our illusions that get shattered when we begin practising a spiritual path that enables us to reorient our trust to more lasting, permanent realities.
Baba Ji once said that saints come not to fulfill our desires but to shatter our illusions.
We have lost trust precisely in that power which is the only stable and reliable reality in an illusory world that keeps betraying our trust. But we forget that betrayal and foolishly trust again and again the same things that have deceived us so many times.
Spirituality, as Baba Jaimal Singh explains in Spiritual Letters, is about restoring trust in what is real through a slow, gradual process that we call meditation. Meditation is the supreme act of trust, and its goal is to reorient our love and loyalty. Baba Jaimal Singh writes:
The day the individual being, that is the soul, separated from Sach Khand and the Shabd-dhun, that very day its trust in the True Lord and the Shabd-dhun was also severed. The Shabd-dhun looks after it all the time, but it does not realize this because its love and loyalties are deeply entrenched in mind and maya.4
We are loyal to mind and maya because that is what we know and identify with. We trust people and things that support our health, wealth, and good reputation. These so-called good things of life inevitably colour the way we see the world and make us believe that the comforts we now enjoy will last. But how short-lived and deceptive those trusted gifts are: health turns into sickness and death; wealth turns into liability and misery, and, along with our wealth, good reputation and former friends vanish as well. Baba Jaimal Singh advises us to shift our trust and loyalty from the ephemeral things we value so highly to the eternal reality of Shabd.
But it takes a lifetime of sustained meditation to reorient our trust. Trust is like a tall arch that cannot be built overnight. Arches rest on two strong pillars. The arch of trust rests on the pillar of love on one side and the pillar of suffering and experience on the other. Both pillars must stand on the foundation of meditation because only meditation can sustain our love. It does that by giving us inner experience and supporting us through difficult and disorienting experiences as well.
Masters are experts both in the mystery of love and the mystery of suffering because they have experienced the greatest depths of both. That is why they are able to reorient our attention and loyalty toward that which will never betray our trust. Baba Jaimal Singh continues:
The Shabd-dhun looks after it (the soul) all the time, but it does not realize this because its love and loyalties are deeply entrenched in mind and maya, and in maya’s objects and the senses that deceive.… [The soul] is dizzy in the love of the mind, and the mind is dizzy in the pleasures of the senses. Maya has spread such a veil over it that it may never regain awareness.5
We are in a dire predicament. We are sick and dizzy, our minds cluttered with the false concepts and beliefs that we call knowledge. We need urgent care. Suffering powerfully cuts through our deluded, dizzy state; it sobers us; and it awakens us to the reality of the people and things that have preoccupied our attention for so long.
Maharaj Sawan Singh (known as the Great Master) also talks about two pillars: Nam practice combined with experience and suffering, which lift us out of this world. In Spiritual Gems he describes how the average struggling soul progresses on the path:
He has heard of the magnificence of Nam from the saints. A tiny spark is kindled in him. He gives it some attention. The days are passing. Partly through receiving knocks (sickness, death in the family, demands on purse, shocks to pride, etc.); partly through age; partly through Satsang; partly because he has passed through some of his pralabdh karma (fate); and partly through devotion to Nam, his attention is slowly contracting. So, by the time he reaches the end of his days, he is almost ready to go up and grasp Nam.6
Meditation combined with pain and suffering shatter the trust we have invested in temporary things. The saints keep telling us: enough. Now sit still within and gradually restore your trust in the One who is truly trustworthy. Seek help from a spiritual Master who can restore your broken trust in your permanent source:
The Satguru, attaching the disciple again to the same Shabd-dhun, will guide him back to Sach Khand. So the disciple’s trust that remained broken in life after life has been restored by the Satguru.7
The gift of suffering
We can begin to rebuild our trust in lasting reality through a loving relationship with a Master. Saints come to teach us and transform us through their love, through their selfless sacrifice for us. When someone asked Baba Ji why mystics seem to undergo suffering much more intense than most human beings, he responded by saying something like: That’s how we learn to live in the will of the Lord. In other words, that’s how mystics teach us to live in the Lord’s will – by being examples.
But do saints really suffer? In fact, they have escaped the trap of suffering and help us do the same. They experience illness and emotions just as we do, but they are not trapped by them. They have broken the iron chain that links misfortune to mental resistance.
Resistance, not painful circumstances, causes suffering. We suffer when our ego resents and resists the events of life. Saints do not have this resistance, so they do not suffer. They call this lack of resistance living happily in the Lord’s will. The Great Master says that the Shabd alone (with which saints are in constant contact) allows a person to remain unscarred through the ups and downs of life:
If one concentrates his attention and catches the Sound Current, his will power becomes strong; thereby his capacity to go through his fate karma increases, and the ups and downs of life leave no scars on him.8
Difficult events and circumstances can be perceived as providential care looking out for our spiritual welfare. That is the perspective of the eternal self with which we get in touch through meditation. Or we can perceive difficulties as karma – punishment for past misdeeds. Meditation gives us the opportunity to see our life circumstances as the manifestation of divine care that perfects the soul rather than as karma that drags the soul down through suffering. The Great Master writes:
If meditation has taken us above the point from where the fate karma works on us, we become indifferent to its effect. Therefore, meditation is the antidote to karma.9
When we rise to the level of the Shabd, we understand that everything that happens is part of a chain of cause and effect that has given us countless, wonderful things: birth in a human body, the environment in which to develop spiritually, the support of a loving Master. So when that same power also sends us misery, loss, and pain, should we not accept it in the same spirit of gratitude, trusting in the overall caring, providential design? If good things flowed from this care, then what we perceive as bad karma is also part of the same design. We have received the priceless gift of life and consciousness. And this inner power is doing everything possible to make us even more alive and conscious. It does this by sending us painful events that scramble our routines and the programming of our computer-like mind.
Sometimes in the midst of extreme crises, danger, and pain people become conscious of a protecting hand supporting them from the inside. Sometimes, in the depths of extreme suffering, we become most conscious of our soul’s reality. Many have reported that they felt most alive when faced with mortal danger or when lying on their death bed.
Spirituality itself grows out of intense, even unimaginable suffering and self-sacrifice combined with unfathomable, mysterious love. The suffering of countless mystics and saints over the centuries shows that trusting the Mystery may not be comfortable for body and mind, but it brings the sweetest fruits of the human spirit, fruits that multiply and nourish suffering souls for generations. And the truth is, we suffer even if we do not trust mystery and surrender to it; we actually suffer more and longer without trust and surrender.
The mystery of suffering brings us to the edge of the cliff, so that we can awaken. This is what happened to the 17th-century mystic Tukaram. He came from a prosperous family and grew up in a house with servants and plenty of everything. Then famine struck. He borrowed money to keep his family alive, but eventually lost his parents, wife, and son to the famine. Then he lost his good name as well because he could not repay his debtors. He had no other place to turn but to the Lord, and he turned to him completely and gratefully, thanking him that there was now nothing and no one standing between him and the Lord:
My wife is dead, she is freed from suffering –
The Lord has released me
From the maya of attachment.
O God, it is just you and me
No one is left to come between us.10
Tukaram’s losses awakened him to the realization that there is more to a human being than the flesh that passes and is no more.
When we begin to cling to the physical, the Masters, God’s ambassadors on earth, take drastic measures to turn our face from the perishable to the eternal, from the visible to the invisible. They give us loss, physical suffering, and discomfort. And this suffering, combined with meditation, restores the soul’s trust in its own Reality, in its essential life. Rumi says,
God’s worst cruelty is better than the mercies of the two worlds. …
In His cruelty lives hidden tenderness.
To submit the soul to God out of love for Him
Makes the soul’s essential life blaze and glow.11
The greatest paradox of spirituality is that in order to restore the soul’s essential life and trust, it has to be torn (sometimes forcefully) from the charms of the visible. God’s logic is different from ours: we train a dog to trust us by giving it treats. God deprives us of visible treats to help us turn to him so that we can begin to receive his invisible, but lasting gifts:
Our greatest problem is that we rely too much on our ego for support. Ego makes us believe that we can rely on people, events, and circumstances that actually have no permanence and are out of our control. We are deluded in the belief that we know what is happening when in fact we do not know. Ego does not like the humbling experience of life’s mysteries and sends us in all the wrong directions trying to solve them rather than confront them. When he sees us in this state, the compassionate Lord sends us troubles to cure us and redirect our attention to the only thing we can trust and cling to:
To pull us back to that place of No-direction,
He sent us troubles from all directions.12
Shabd is the place of No-direction. While the physical realm is obsessed with directions and boundaries, in Shabd there are no directions and no boundaries. By entering this divine stream, the saints escape the suffering that we call “the human condition.” This is because they fully surrender to the mystery of life and do not resist the iron logic of its unfolding.
To help us surrender, the Lord, in his infinite love, puts us face to face with the mystery of life’s suffering, so that we can find our way back to a state of trust. The pillar of our love and the pillar of our suffering support and restore our trust in the Lord of our soul, Radha Soami. But the arch of trust can rise tall only if its supporting pillars – love on one side and the experience of suffering on the other – are firmly planted on the foundation of meditation, our only source of lasting love and true experience.
- Gary F. Moring, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Einstein, Gary Moring, 2004, p.286
- Gabriel Marcel “On the Ontological Mystery,” in The Philosophy of Existenialism, trans. Manya Harari, 1995, p.12
- Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, 2000, p.8
- Baba Jaimal Singh, Spiritual Letters, Letter 46
- Maharaj Sawan Singh, Spiritual Gems, Letter 24
- Spiritual Letters, Letter 46
- Spiritual Gems, Letter 96
- Ibid., Letter 28
- Tukaram: The Ceaseless Song of Devotion, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, p.11
- Andrew Harvey, Teachings of Rumi, 1999, p.113
- Jalal al-Din Rumi, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, p.108