The Invisible Prison - Honest Living

The Invisible Prison

Who is in charge?

From earliest childhood we are encouraged to think of ourselves as unique individuals and to develop our individuality. From the spiritual perspective this is an illusion. It is strengthened by the present worldview which emphasizes individual rights and personal freedom. We fail to see that when we think of ourselves this way we are simply seeing our separate reality of mind and body and ignoring our common spiritual reality. By emphasizing our differences and separateness and ignoring our commonality, we are assuming that we are physical, rather than spiritual beings.

We talk about freedom and personal fulfilment, but because our understanding is limited to the material, we cannot see that in the light of the law of karma, we have no free will at all. From a higher perspective we are simply undergoing the reactions of our earlier actions, repaying debts that have to be repaid. Who we are, or rather who we think we are, is shaped by debits and credits incurred in earlier lives. We would do well to reflect on how many key aspects there are to our life over which we have had no control. Our parents, when and where we were born, our particular genetic patterning and our early education – all are part of the conditioning that has made us what we are today. When so much of what we are now has happened beyond our control, is it not foolish to think we are free?

As we come to understand the karmic principle, we begin to realize how little freedom we really have. It is our mind, conditioned by earlier impressions, that is in charge. Our task therefore is to extricate ourselves from this pattern of living as slaves to the mind. To do this we have to start by remembering that each action, each thought, imprints itself on our consciousness. Each one will remain with us and influence us until it finds full compensation at some future time. Over many lifetimes these impressions have built walls around our souls so thick that we cannot hear the life-giving music of the Word or Shabd – and it is our conscious experience of the Shabd that will put us in touch with who we are. As long as we are not present to the spirit within us, we will remain trapped by ignorance. The images that are used frequently in the scriptures to convey our helplessness are prison, snare, net, trap. In the Bible we read:

The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him,
 and he is caught in the toils of his sin.

Since this burden of “sin” cannot be settled in one life, we carry it across the threshold of physical death from one life to another. If we are not careful, while we are settling our present destiny we will be creating fresh debts for future lives. Dadu Sahib, a sixteenth-century Indian mystic of Rajasthan, says:

Be in fear, O be in fear of the Lord!
Though He gives in abundance,
 He seeks an account,
 therefore guard yourself against evil.
Let all your dealings be true,
 believe in truth alone.
Falsehood you must not entertain,
 if you would avoid poison.
Dadu Sahib7

By the very nature of the creation, our captivity is self-perpetuating, for we ourselves keep building our prison walls. Being ignorant of their real consequences, we make little attempt to control our thoughts and actions. And if we are dishonest, we compound our problem by incurring heavier debts.

To extricate ourselves from this trap, not only must we “guard ourselves against evil”, we must also work to cultivate positive qualities. Positive qualities enable us to think positively; they strengthen our mind to act in our long-term interest. They remind us that we are not just separate personalities but part of the positive reality that is God. Meditation is our one certain way to escape, but as long as the mind takes its messages only from the outside world, we keep undoing the benefit of any spiritual practice by incurring new debts.

Empowering the mind and freeing the soul

There are two steps we can take to help the power of the Word within us become the dominant force in our lives. Each step depends upon the other for success. First, living honest, pure lives helps prevent our debts from increasing so that we can cease rebuilding our prison. Second, meditation, built upon the firm foundation of a disciplined life, concentrates the mind and focuses it away from the material creation. It frees us so our spiritual faculties can start functioning. Once these different faculties are fine-tuned, we will experience the Word reverberating within us, and our contact with the Word or the Shabd will bring the real freedom and inner harmony we seek.

These two steps are interdependent because concentrating the mind necessitates a high degree of mastery over oneself and an atmosphere of tranquillity and peace. If, through meditation, we are to expand our consciousness beyond the physical, then our entire attention has to be concentrated towards the non-material realm. The mind is one and it is for us to choose: it can either be directed outwards, to the creation, or inwards where we can experience the spirit.

How many times do we say, or hear others say, “I would like to, but I just don’t have the will power”? Who are these two ‘I’s that are contradicting each other? We want to do something, but we cannot do what we want! The upstart I is the mind driven by its constant hunger for satisfaction, taking control and leading us where it wants. We are creatures of habit, and our mind, bullied by the senses, has the habit of running in whatever direction is easiest. Out in the creation and looking for pleasure, we get caught up in our obsessions. Since the material world is constantly changing, so our mind, too, keeps changing its focus and we find ourselves fragmented, restless and out of control.

To go where we want to go, we have to transform the mind. We have to create new habits that marginalize the I who leads us out into the world. By striving to live honestly, we develop qualities that strengthen our will power and our ability to stand up to our weaknesses. We develop the positive qualities of contentment, compassion, purity, detachment and humility, and these in turn further support our efforts to choose the inner life.

Remembering that we are accountable for everything we do helps us empower the spiritual I. If we do wrong, thinking we can get away with it, then we are supporting the upstart I. No matter how much we then try to meditate, we will not attain our objective. If we attempt to realize the Word, the Shabd, without curbing our negative tendencies, we are trying to achieve the impossible – to move in two opposing directions at once:

No man can serve two masters:
For either he will hate the one,
 and love the other;
Or else he will hold to the one,
 and despise the other.
Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Gospel of Matthew8

We must be clear about our priorities. From the saints and spiritual masters we know that only when we hear the Word within us will the impressions of actions lying beyond our present destiny be settled. Only through the Word can our account with life be erased. If we are clear that spiritual realization is our goal, then the first thing to do is to support our spiritual self.

Ignorance: the prison of our soul

As long as our senses dominate our thinking, we remain ignorant of the real order of the creation. Until we are in conscious contact with the Word, we are limited by our physical perspective and our understanding remains distorted. As Jesus said:

O ye of little faith!
Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
 and all these things shall be added unto you.
Gospel of Matthew9

Lacking spiritual knowledge, we identify ourselves with the physical and give priority to tangible, material goals. If we had real faith in what we profess – that our reality is eternal and that in this life we simply are going through our destiny – we would surrender ourselves to the divine will. But our faith is half-baked, our knowledge fractional, because we are not yet in touch with who we are. In the Buddhist scriptures it says:

The fool is tormented, thinking,
 “These sons belong to me”,
 “This wealth belongs to me”.
He himself does not belong to himself.
How then can sons be his?
How can wealth be his?

We do not ‘belong’ to ourselves because we have not yet experienced ourselves. From moment to moment we struggle to shape our destiny on the basis of intellectual or sensual whims. Our reference points are our social, religious and cultural context and the thinking of our times. To complicate things further, we recognize no limits to our actions, driven as we are by prejudices and passions that arise from our conditioning. We remain oblivious of the fact that our destiny for this life is already fixed so that we must settle a specific portion of our account. We fail to remember, as it is written in the Bible, that our every hair, our every breath, is numbered.11 This ignorance can then lead to the unfortunate situation described by Baba Jaimal Singh in one of his letters to Master Sawan Singh:

The individual who, instead of his own rightful earnings, considers it better to fraudulently live off another’s just labour, has not realized that what the Lord has given is specific to his needs. ... As he acquires name and fame, he increasingly uses force or fraud in order to usurp the rights of those lesser or lower than him, while hoarding his own wealth, or spending it uselessly, or doing other bad deeds. Such a being subsequently has to pay those from whom he has taken, and pays it by taking birth repeatedly – by becoming an animal, cow, or donkey, again and again. So understand, my son, that apart from your rightful earnings, you are never to use what belongs to others. This is the first step on the spiritual ladder. Even if you are the king of the whole world, you are still to eat only the rightful fruit of your own labour.
Baba Jaimal Singh12

We may reflect that of all the creatures, it is only humans that take from life what they do not need. All other creatures function by instinct and take only what they need to sustain their existence. It is only human beings – using the unique discriminating faculty of the human mind to the wrong ends – who experience passions which know no bounds. How few of us are content with what we need in life, rather than what we want. Two spiritual guides, one speaking in the context of Greek Christianity more than five hundred years ago, and one speaking from present-day India, advise the disciple in almost identical terms:

We should remain, then, within the limits imposed by our basic needs and strive with all our power not to exceed them. For once we are carried a little beyond these limits in our desire for the pleasures of this life, there is then no criterion by which to check the onward movement, since no bounds can be set to that which exceeds the necessary.
One ought always to live within one’s means. Try to adjust your budget and reduce your wants. There can be no end to a person’s desires. One can increase one’s wants as much as one likes, and one may also reduce them to the minimum. The richest person is one who has no desires.
Master Charan Singh14

Easily fooled by the surface of life, we get over-involved and caught up by our actions while remaining blind to their inevitable effects. Influenced by others and by the scintillating appearance of what we see, we start to covet what others have. The twelfth-century mystic, Sheikh Farid, warns against covetousness. In fact, it is in our real interests to guard against desiring anything that belongs to someone else. Our interests lie in cultivating the opposite virtue – that of contentment – so that we are not tempted to try and acquire something that is not ours:

Relish your food, dry and simple ...
 be not enticed by another’s bread.
Sheikh Farid15

And Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru, warns:

You clutch at things that belong to another,
 but the Lord within knows and hears all.
Lost in greed for worldly things,
 you fall into the pit of hell,
 unaware of what lies in store for you in the beyond.
Guru Arjan Dev16

If only we were able to see the long-term consequences of our desires as we go about fulfilling them, we would almost certainly change our tune. But this, it seems, is part of creation’s play – that we should have no way of seeing how both soul and mind will have to return again and again to the creation, “the pit of hell”, to reap the harvest of the seeds we are sowing now. Even within the scope of one lifetime, how many times do we witness the way in which worldly activities and the quest for success imprison people in the chains of their own dreams! Because of our ignorance, the saints advise us to keep watch over our desires and ambitions and try to anticipate where they might lead. In this context, we have the wise advice of the moralist, Baltasar Gracian, speaking in the seventeenth century:

Men driven by ambition often succeed outwardly and fail inwardly. Their outer resources multiply at the cost of their spiritual energy. Yet they go blindly forward with small consideration that happy leisure is worth more than drive; for nothing belongs to us except time. Precious existence is squandered in stupid drudgery. Overwork is the mother of greed and the substitute for boredom. Once entrapped, escape comes only with the slow collapse of body functions. So be not crushed under success, and be not crushed under envy! To be so is to trample upon life and to suffocate the spirit. Enjoy a little more, strive a little less.
Baltasar Gracian17

Because we are limited in our understanding, we let greed, ambition or insecurity determine the pattern of our days. If we are to address the negative effects of our ignorance, we must at least ensure that today’s actions reflect our long-term aims. To gather a sweet harvest, we have to sow the seeds of sweet, not bitter, fruits now.

Our thoughts and actions – the prison walls

As we look deeper into the workings of the law of karma, we begin to see that one reason we go on doing what we do is because we do not experience the repercussions of our deeds straightaway. It is precisely because of our ignorance that we end up in such a trap. If we could see the results of our thoughts and actions, would we ever allow them to lead us to suffering? If we put our hand into a fire, we immediately experience pain, so we do not repeat the action. But just imagine what would happen if our nerves were not functioning! We might leave our hand in the fire – we might even go on doing so until our hand burned away. This is the physical plane, but it is the same at the spiritual level. Our spiritual nerves have been deadened to such an extent that we fail to understand where our thoughts and deeds are taking us. We forget that while the wheels of the law may grind slowly, they grind exceedingly fine. In the Buddhist scriptures we read:

So long as an evil deed does not bear fruit,
 the fool thinks that it is like honey;
But when it bears fruit, then the fool suffers grief.
An evil deed, like newly drawn milk, does not sour;
Smouldering, like fire covered by ashes,
 it follows the fool.

There is a story told in India of Dhritarashtra, a wise king who had been blind from birth. He was blessed with spiritual powers whereby he could see into his past lives. One day he asked Lord Krishna the reason for his blindness, explaining that he had looked back over one hundred lives and seen no action that could justify this cruel fate. Lord Krishna instructed him to look further, beyond one hundred lives, and there he saw himself as a young child tormenting a small creature by poking thorns into its eyes.

All our actions, like fruit, have their own time of ripening. It is easy for us, with our limited vision, to excuse or ignore things we do. It is particularly easy to dismiss small dishonesties as being of no significance. But mystics tell us that no action, however small, is insignificant. One day, on the vast panorama of time, it will have its reckoning. Master Jagat Singh says:

Not even a single grain that inadvertently enters your granary from a neighbour’s field can go unaccounted.
Master Jagat Singh19

This law does not apply just at the physical level; it is true of all interaction. Whatever the nature of the interaction – physical, financial, emotional, or sexual – a bond is created between those involved. Whatever the give and take of the situation, any resulting imbalances will have to be redressed. Here we have quotations from the fourteenth-century mystic, Rumi, and a letter of the disciple James in the New Testament:

Turn away from living on the public
So that you may not be affected by their blood.
Consider this food to be their blood,
Because it is obtained by force.
Jalaluddin Rumi20

Behold the wages of labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
Letter of James21

Whatever the circumstances, whatever the nature of the interaction, in the end every thought and deed binds itself to an equivalent reaction in order to balance the account.

We alone have to account for our actions

Whatever we think and do, it is we, and we alone, who are responsible. We delude ourselves if we think otherwise, if we think that others – our employer, family members, or those close to us – will share the crop we have sown even if it was for their sake.

There is a story told of a person who went to a holy man requesting initiation into the secrets of spiritual enlightenment. The mystic asked him how he earned his living.

“By stealing,” he said.
The mystic then questioned, “Why do you do that?”
The man replied, “Because I am not trained to do anything else and I have to support myself and my family.”
“Will they help you by sharing your punishment if you are caught?” said the holy man.
“Of course,” replied the man. But the holy man told him to go home and ask them.
So he went home and asked his family: “If the king arrests me and I’m punished, will you share my fate?”
“Not at all!” they all responded. “That is your outlook. If you choose to support us in this way, it’s your fault, not ours.”

Is it not ironical that we sacrifice our integrity to create wealth or power for others, and they, when the day of reckoning comes, share no part of our fate?

The following words of Emerson bring us once again to the dangers of our partial vision. How easy it is to lose sight of, or simply ignore, our responsibility when we act on behalf of a group, an organization, our community or our country! We may have a conscience that makes us uneasy, but we side-step it, shifting the responsibility to others or onto the impersonal and amorphous ‘group’. Either we do not care to listen to what our conscience tells us or we fail to recognize the truth.

The ways of trade are grown selfish to the borders of theft, and supple to the borders ... of fraud. ... Everybody partakes, everybody confesses ... yet none feels himself accountable. ... That is the vice, that no one feels himself called to act for man, but only as a fraction of man.
Ralph Waldo Emerson22

This lack of accountability, the lack of understanding of personal responsibility for all we do, accounts among other things for the rapid collapse of the institution of marriage in the last few decades. How far will we let today’s culture of self-interest take us? We are so keen to secure our personal rights, yet do we understand our personal responsibilities? Marriage provides a framework in which one of the deepest forces of the creation can express itself and we can meet the responsibilities that ensue. It safeguards the family unit so that children may grow up secure and two people may work together to meet the needs of all involved. Has the study of human behaviour shown us a better way to transmit and develop positive values than in the context of a secure and loving family? Marriage is a life-long commitment made between two people, and as such it provides a structure within which we can mature emotionally and better understand our responsibilities to one another, to our family and to the society in which we live. By taking us beyond our personal wants and needs, it establishes order on the potential chaos of our emotional and sexual desires. Being faithful to one’s partner and honouring one’s commitment through thick and thin goes beyond mere social convention. It reinforces and supports one’s spiritual priorities. By honouring our commitment, we are acknowledging that real happiness comes through spiritual fulfilment, that chasing happiness at the cost of our responsibilities is a delusion that leads us the wrong way.

Living dishonestly – cementing our prison walls

The human passions are the servants of Maya, the seductive face of material existence that makes us believe that nothing else is real. The passions of lust and greed create this illusion by getting us addicted to the sense pleasures. Then to satisfy our desires, we are dishonest with ourselves and one another; to justify our actions we indulge in self-deception; we end by having identified ourselves with the most limited aspect of what we are.

Honest living necessitates self-control. It requires that we exercise restraint in all our dealings, that we use our sense of judgement, our God-given gift of discrimination, to shape our lives. Honesty implies being faithful to our spouse, or, if we are not married, being faithful to a chaste life. It implies fairness and justice, openness and transparency, the absence of deceit – in contrast to wealth, power and passion, which lead to oppression, extortion, deception and pain.

Whether it is through greed for money or power, the pleasures of the senses, lust – the routes the passions take are limitless. The Cloud of Unknowing, written in the Middle Ages by an anonymous British author as a practical guide to the spiritual seeker, speaks of what can happen if we give the senses free rein:

Sensuality ... is the one and the same faculty that will grumble when the body is lacking essential requirements, yet when the need is met, will move it to take more than it requires ... and unless it will control both its strong desires when it has its wonted pleasures, and its greedy delight when the improving irritations are gone, it will wallow, like some pig in the mire, so wretchedly and wildly in all the wealth of the world ... that the whole of its life will be animal and physical rather than human and spiritual.
The Cloud of Unknowing 23

Failing to understand their consequences, we allow our passions to carry us deeper into the creation. We need to remember that if, by letting our senses drive our will, we behave more like animals, we may well be born as animals in the future so we can settle today’s account.

Guru Arjan speaks of how greed can be so powerful that it makes us compromise the relationships we have with those we love most:

O greed, you have enveloped
 even the best of people in your tides:
Their minds ramble, shake and wander in all directions.
You have regard neither for friendship, nor gods,
 neither for father, mother, nor relations. ...
To escape from its influence,
 I seek shelter with a prayer:
O Lord, come to my rescue!
Save me, almighty Father.
Guru Arjan Dev 24

How many times are families torn apart, friendships severed, and basic human principles compromised for the sake of possessing what is not ours. God forbid that we should so deceive ourselves that as we die, we see we have wasted our time:

Renouncing fear of God, we are shorn of restraint;
We do not enthrone the Lord, who is ever with us,
 but raise armies and collect plunder.
Yet with our death, everything turns to dust.
Guru Arjan Dev 25

Guru Arjan’s example of the ruthless conqueror, apt for those days of warring states and petty kingdoms, might be substituted today with the image of the totalitarian and expansive regimes of modern times and the profit-hungry entrepreneurs and companies of the business world. So often the pursuit of profit and power takes place at the expense of the common man. Whether on a large or small scale, the issues are the same: What is our objective? Are we fair in our dealings with everyone?

The scriptures of all world religions contain strong injunctions against dishonesty. In the Qur’an it says:

Whenever you weigh, do it properly and use a precise scale.
Do not steal money from others and do not give bribes.

In the Bible, we read:

You shall not steal.
You shall not covet ... anything that is your neighbour’s.

And in the Buddhist scriptures, it says:

As a merchant without guards, and carrying much wealth,
 shuns a dangerous road,
As a man who loves his life avoids poison,
 so should a wise man avoid evil actions.

Master Sawan Singh speaks of the serious repercussions of dishonesty for a person who wishes to walk the path of spirituality:

Even if a disciple does not spend much time in meditation, he should certainly abstain from dishonesty, because deficiency in meditation can be compensated for by the Master’s grace, but trickery, treachery, fraud and deception undermine the very foundation of spirituality. To settle such accounts one has to take birth again.
Master Sawan Singh29

Even when we have accepted intellectually the truth of this law, we may fail to change our actions out of sheer complacency – we choose to simply ignore its implications. We need to remind ourselves that the unwary mind, when it is regularly exposed to anything, quickly loses its natural sensitivity and becomes coarse in its responses. This is a fact with which we are very familiar as technology exposes us to all sorts of unwanted influences right inside our home. How many of us sit and watch the most terrible images on television without reacting! Just as familiarity breeds contempt, so, if we do not remove ourselves from negative influences, familiarity may breed moral complacency so that our natural moral instinct for self-preservation – our conscience – becomes dull.

Material or spiritual: a question of priorities

Since it is a natural tendency of all human beings to strive for happiness and to improve their situation in life, the success of our spiritual journey depends on what we put first, our spiritual or material goals. Master Jagat Singh guides us to give our best to whatever we do but not get attached to the results:

For your part make all necessary efforts to improve your circumstances; but leave the results of your efforts to the Satguru’s will. He is not unaware of your problems.
Master Jagat Singh30

The danger lies in making material goals our priority. We are then equating riches with happiness and we immediately become vulnerable to compromising those very principles established to safeguard us. As the Buddhist scriptures put it:

Riches destroy the foolish,
 not those who seek beyond the other shore.
By a craving for riches,
 the foolish person destroys himself as he destroys others.

The fact is that in this cut-throat, consumer-oriented world, most of us are likely to face frequent temptations to compromise our principles. Once we make anything in the outside world our priority, we can be easily tempted to ignore our scruples. Once we have enjoyed a measure of ‘the good life’, the life of sensual indulgence, we may get attached to it and not be prepared to let it go. The second-century Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, advises us on how to deal with material comforts but, at the same time, to remember our divine link with our spiritual inheritance:

Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go cheerfully. If you ever saw a hand cut off, or a foot, or a head lying anywhere apart from the rest of the body – this is what a man does with himself who is not content with what happens, and separates himself from others, or does anything unsocial. ... But consider the benevolence by which God has distinguished man, for he has put it in his power not to be separated at all from the universal; and when he has been separated, he has allowed him to return and to be united and to resume his place as a part.
Marcus Aurelius 32

The more we are preoccupied with the material world, the more we lose our spiritual perspective. This is why saints warn us that the world is a place of great danger. From their point of view, we are walking along the edge of a precipice and if we let our attention wander, we may hurtle to our death. That is why our daily routine of meditation is so important, as is regular satsang and reading spiritual literature. Frail humans that we are, it is all too easy to be seduced by life at the surface and look to the material world for our well-being and security. Then, as Jesus pointed out:

How hard it is for them that trust in riches
 to enter into the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,
 than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
Gospel of Mark33

One of the practical measures we can take to help ourselves is to keep supportive company. Since we are naturally influenced by the people we spend time with, we should avoid wrong company. In every discourse he gave, Master Charan Singh spoke of the power of association:

We are always influenced by the company we keep. If we start mixing with criminals, with bad people, we will start thinking along these lines. If we mix with good people, with noble people, with devotees, we will start thinking in their way.
Master Charan Singh34

Sarmad, a Jewish mystic who lived in India in the seventeenth century, also warns against bad company:

In this world of avarice and envy ...
 have no fear of snakes and scorpions;
Keep far away from greedy people –
 they bite like snakes and scratch like thorns.
Sarmad Shaheed 35

We have to remember that the moment we lose sight of our spiritual goal, however exciting our lives or successful we may be by the yardstick of the world, we are likely to get lost in the fog of our own logic. The next step on this route is hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy – the dishonourable companion of greed

Hypocrisy is another form of dishonesty – being dishonest in the way we project ourselves to the world, saying one thing and doing another. Having good intentions and speaking lofty words about spiritual values and moral principles is not enough. The details of our daily lives – both at home and at work – have to reflect our goal. This is a late eighteenth-century warning from Thomas Paine:

It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief ... that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.
Thomas Paine36

Sometimes, for various reasons, we are ready to do things in our professions that we would never subscribe to in our personal lives. It is as though we hang our consciences up with our coats as we enter the office door. We compromise for money, for fear of losing our jobs, or sometimes because we genuinely see our actions as fulfilling some other responsibility. The point Thomas Paine is making is that once we allow ourselves to practise two sets of values, who is to set the limits on how far we are prepared to go?

Even in relation to our spiritual effort, we need to be aware of the dangers of hypocrisy. Many of us would like to appear virtuous and spiritual in the eyes of others. We adopt the external trappings of spirituality, appearing to be righteous and devoted, yet in our daily activities we are negative and uncharitable. We may genuinely want to experience the spirit but are not prepared to change the way we are. We are not ready to make the sacrifices required.

Hypocrisy is one of the prisms through which we distort the teachings of the saints. Because we are not prepared to mould ourselves to the teachings, we adjust them to suit us, to fit in with what we desire. This leads to division and confusion within ourselves. We try to behave in one way but are actually motivated in another, and end up simply putting on a show of spirituality.

Bulleh Shah, the hard-hitting Punjabi Sufi poet, questions the hypocritical behaviour of people who piously ask for God’s forgiveness while continuing to cheat others and behave immorally:

You go on reading, “Forgive me, O Lord” –  
 what repentance is this, O friend?
You give one measure and take back one and a quarter –  
 you have wagered to make illicit profit.
When did Islam give you such a teaching?
Such are your doings! What repentance is this?
You go to places where you should not go.
You relish things which belong to others.
You falsely swear by holy books.
Such is your trust! What repentance is this?
Saa’in Bulleh Shah37

Taken to an extreme, hypocrisy may lead a person to set him- or herself up before others as a spiritual leader, professing to lead them to truth.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
For ye make clean the outside
 of the cup and of the platter,
 but within they are full of extortion and excess.
Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first
 that which is within the cup and platter,
 that the outside of them may be clean also. ...
Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men,
 but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
Gospel of Matthew38
The scholar is proud of his learning,
 the hafiz thrives on self-promotion.
With books under their arms,
 they roam around, selling their honour.
Wherever they find a promising household,
 they read the scripture in loud, fervent strains
 for a lucrative commission.
O Bahu! They have put God’s name on sale
 just to make a living.
In this world they live spiritually bankrupt;  
 robbed of all honour, they go to the one beyond.
Hazrat Sultan Bahu39

It is hypocrisy when people ‘sell’ spirituality. Making a person pay for spiritual guidance is a contradiction in itself. Spirit is the free and abundant life force present within every living being. Each person has simply to be awakened to that power within him- or herself. True spiritual masters impart their wisdom and share their experience with their fellow human beings out of love and compassion, never for money. They never do it to support themselves. Kabir Sahib and Guru Nanak Dev speak here of the hypocrisy of those who turn spirituality into a business, who charge for the initiation they give, and indulge their greed and desire for power and fame in the name of the spirit:

Without a perfect master,
 one cannot become a true disciple.
When the master is greedy and the disciple covetous,
 nothing but greed multiplies.
Cheap are such masters,
 a dime a dozen.
By selling God’s name,
 they hope to increase their following.
Kabir Sahib40
Damned are they who sell the Lord’s Name!
Just as those who ruin their crops
 are left with nothing,
 through falsehood no one receives true glory.
Guru Nanak41

Mystics warn against such so-called spiritual leaders. By taking material support from their followers, they only increase their own karmic debts. As Paltu Sahib says, true spiritual masters never take anything from their disciples:

Never does a saint seek alms,
 never holds out his hand before others:
The swan stoops not to pick up shellfish,
 the lion scorns to browse on grass.
Paltu Sahib42

Guru Nanak describes this as the one certain way by which false masters can be distinguished from the true:

If a saint or a seer goes begging,
 bow not at his feet;
He who earns his own living
 and gives part of it in charity –
 he alone knows the way.
Guru Nanak43
A disturbed mind: we are the wardens of our own prison

Our difficulties do not lie so much in the things of the world as in our attitude to life. When our desires and actions distract us and disturb our equilibrium, it is as though we are standing guard at our own prison door. The Buddhist scriptures point out the extent of the harm we do to ourselves when our mind is misdirected:

Whatever an enemy can do to an enemy,
 whatever a hater can do to a hater –
A wrongly directed mind can do us greater harm.

The passions scatter the mind and dissipate our positive energy, making it impossible for us to concentrate. Just as water does not reflect anything when it is murky and disturbed, so a disturbed, worried and restless mind can never hear the Shabd. As long as the mind is agitated by desires or actions, it remains distracted and we cannot focus our attention. And so long as our attention is not one-pointed, we cannot enter the subtle spiritual realms.

The mind and soul are knotted together, and only when the mind is clear of karmic impressions can the soul be free of its association. Just as currents in the ocean can gradually pull a boat off-course, so do disturbances in the mind interfere with the soul’s return to its spiritual home.

Jesus relates the parable of the sower to explain this very point. He describes how a farmer goes to his field to sow seed. But some fall by the wayside, some on stony or rocky ground, some among weeds and some on fertile ground. He then continues:

Now the parable is this:
The seed is the word of God.
Those by the way side are they that hear;
 then cometh the devil,
 and taketh away the word out of their hearts,
 lest they should believe and be saved.
They on the rock are they,  
 which, when they hear, receive the word with joy;
 and these have no root, which for a while believe,
 and in time of temptation fall away.
And that which fell among thorns are they,
 which, when they have heard, go forth,
 and are choked with cares
 and riches and pleasures of this life,
 and bring no fruit to perfection.
But that on the good ground are they,
 which in an honest and good heart,
 having heard the word, keep it,
 and bring forth fruit with patience.
Gospel of Luke45

In this parable, Jesus says that although God’s dynamic power, the Word, has germinated in our hearts, as long as the heart remains choked with cares, the Word cannot flourish and bear fruit. Some people quickly forget its reality after it has been revealed to them; for others, their faith is too shallow to withstand times of trouble; but those who are concerned about wealth and material comfort inhibit their own progress because they are preoccupied with worldly desires.

In these times of mass consumerism and advertising, it is a rare person who can remain content with his or her lot. In every sphere of life today we are bombarded with suggestions to improve our lives by acquiring more. It is a dangerous game. Our possessions and activities in the world have a way of complicating and taking over our lives. Already we are ‘possessed’ by the impressions of our previous deeds. New obsessions further complicate our lives. And as we know from experience and a little introspection, our desires are never-ending: if we satisfy one, a thousand more take its place. It is sometimes said that the wealth of the entire world cannot satisfy the desires of a discontented, greedy person.

When we indulge greed – whether in the form of property, possessions, money or anything else – we do not quell desire. A fire is not extinguished by feeding it fuel. Kabir Sahib says:

You cannot put out the fire of greed by feeding it –
 day by day it will only continue to increase.
Kabir Sahib46

Again, in the Buddhist scriptures we read:

Men driven on by craving run about like hunted hares.
Fast bound by fetters,
 they undergo suffering for a long time,
 again and again.
The craving of a thoughtless man grows like a creeper.
Like a monkey seeking fruit in the forest,
 he leaps about hither and thither.

In the Sikh tradition, one of the most frequently recited prayers observes:

One’s hunger is not satisfied
 even by the pleasures of all three worlds.
Guru Nanak49

The “three worlds” is a way of referring to the many dimensions of consciousness that exist below the purely spiritual realm. Our attachments are so tenacious that dissatisfaction – this disturbance of the mind that is caused by constant reawakening of desire – goes on troubling us even at the more subtle levels. And it will continue to trouble us until we are absolutely free of the last vestiges of the mind and pass to the ‘fourth world’, the dimension of pure spirit.

The extreme subtleties of the law

The law of karma is inexorable and subtle beyond our imagination. For example, even if we are party to someone else’s dishonourable actions, we too are culpable as an accessory to the suffering caused.

There is a story that indicates the subtleties of the law: A holy man took lodgings for the night in the hut of a poor elderly woman. Since she had no extra food to feed him in the morning, she sat up all night spinning cotton, then sold the yarn in the market to purchase food for him. But when the holy man next sat in meditation, he found he could not raise his attention. He looked around him so he might understand why. Knowing that the old lady had bought the food from her own earnings – having worked overnight – he noted that there was no oil lamp or any other source of light in the house. He therefore asked her how it was that she had worked in the dark. “You see,” she said, “there is a prostitute living opposite. All night there was a lamp burning in her house so I sat outside and used her light.”

Such stories put before us an ideal of honesty that would seem totally impossible to maintain in the complex and fast-moving world of today. That borrowing light from someone engaged in immoral or dishonest work could affect food and damage our chances of improving ourselves – how can we possibly guard ourselves against errors of such a subtle nature! The modern food industry confronts us with this sort of dilemma. The introduction of animal genes into vegetables and of minute quantities of animal derivatives into a wide range of vegetarian foodstuffs are just two of a multitude of such issues we have to face. We find ourselves saying: How can we pursue our objective of spiritual realization in such circumstances? If we have to be so careful in our judgement of what is right and wrong, how can we survive?

Once again, it is a question of cultivating the right attitude. It is impossible to live in the world without doing some wrong. The world itself revolves on duality, the interaction of positive and negative, of right deeds and wrong. We have to understand the principles that support our spiritual orientation, and then do our best. It is for each of us, looking to our particular circumstances, to decide at a practical level where to draw the line. We have to guard ourselves against being fanatical or getting so involved with the details that we lose sight of the bigger issues.

Because the links of karma are subtle and far-reaching, it is important that we understand how they work. Understanding the principles and being well-informed on the issues gives us the opportunity to choose to avoid their negative effects. But first we have to take care of the major issues – being penny wise and pound foolish will also keep us from our goal.

A rare and precious opportunity missed

If we are sailing to a specific destination and alter our course by only one or two degrees, with the passage of time and distance we will sail far wide of our mark. This is the human tragedy – that we so readily miss the unique opportunity we now have to realize God. What may appear to us as only a small deviation from the ideal can, over time, cost us the opportunity of a lifetime. Our emotions, attachments and passions blind us to our birthright, the real treasure that is within us. When we fail to recognize our unique potential, we forfeit a level of happiness beyond imagination. This, then, is the cry of all who have experienced the spirit – crying out to their fellow human beings to wake up to what life is, to take advantage of the present moment so we do not slip back once again into the vast and painful cycle of birth and death:

Born again and again, you die to be born again;
Thus, on a never-ending journey,
 you suffer ceaselessly from misery and pain.
You have not realized the Creator Lord
 and so you suffer, poor blind soul!
Guru Arjan Dev50

The Muslim mystic Bulleh Shah speaks of it as gambling away this precious opportunity by staking our lives on worldly goods:

The rights of others you do not understand;
Burdened with a load of ill-gotten wealth,
 you will have to return to the creation.
Robbed of a priceless opportunity,
 in the gambling den of the world,
 you are going to lose a winning hand.
Saa’in Bulleh Shah51

The saints remind us that the human form is the only one in which the soul can become aware of itself. It is the only form in which we can become conscious of what we are. It is the top rung of the long ladder of creation and, if we miss it, our soul will fall back into the great cycle of creation to travel endlessly through the myriad species which have neither the capacity for spiritual awareness nor the power of discrimination to lead them out.

A metaphor is used in Eastern mysticism in which human life is likened to a golden sword. We have received it as a gift, but instead of using it to blaze a trail of glory by immobilizing our inner opponents, we completely misunderstand its function and use it in the kitchen of the physical world to chop onions and tomatoes.

As we look back on our life when we pass through death’s door, how will we assess it? Will we feel at peace with ourselves and secure? This is what we need to consider when faced with Jesus’ question in the well-known lines from St Matthew’s gospel:

For what is a man profited,
 if he shall gain the whole world,
 and lose his own soul?
Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
Gospel of Matthew52
What is right action?

Right action or living by spiritual principles is our way of transforming or spiritualizing our mind while protecting ourselves from the many negative influences of the creation that can tug us off course. Our growing sensitivity to the spiritual perspective enables us to see how even the smallest negative impulses create negative effects. We begin to understand why wrong action can never be justified. Living by our principles, we appreciate more and more the value of a clear moral structure to limit our potential for going astray. We find we are able to make practical, well-informed choices so that we can meet our responsibilities. Gradually we learn from experience that living well is a question of never losing sight of our objective, of being moderate in all things, and of knowing where to draw the line between our needs and our desires.

Having looked at the complex and far-reaching effects of the law of karma, we are now in a position to define what honest living really means. By placing ourselves firmly in a spiritual context and understanding that all action comes from the simple law of give and take, we can define for ourselves a practical code of conduct that applies this understanding.

We create a moral structure, a code of values and principles, to put limits on our actions and to safeguard us in spite of our blindness. We have to be protected from our own mind. The mind is powerful, and it is the mind, preoccupied with the creation through life after life, that has kept us from enjoying the liberating power of Shabd. Negative habits have become so deeply entrenched and the tentacles of the passions are so fine and far-reaching that, in spite of our best efforts, we are likely to go astray again and again.

Without the redeeming power of the Shabd, no one can reach the final goal or destination. But to help ourselves we have to fulfil our part of the plan. We have to cultivate qualities that keep the mind turned towards the soul and hold it steadfast when the going is tough. We need positive qualities that are in harmony with the underlying spiritual reality of which our soul is a part. Our saving grace is that we have come in contact with a spiritual master, a lover of God, who knows where to go. The masters are examples for us of how to live in the world, and until we ourselves have attained their vision, we follow the path they have already trod.