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What is Spiritual Life ?

Over 2,600 years ago in a small kingdom in northern India a young man was on the verge of a spiritual awakening. He was a prince, shielded from all the ills of the world, with his every need supplied, yet something in him was not truly satisfied. He pondered this fact and over time his mind became remarkably clear. He saw clearly that no real or sustained joy in this life is truly possible-all things pass away; everything is ephemeral. This body of ours is born, suffers and enjoys for its allotted time and then dies. Everyone we love and everything we cherish and want to hold on to will also pass away. This great prince saw clearly that at the root of our various sorrows in life was desire, because attachment to things that are transitory will finally only bring pain. We want and want some more, and we never seem to be fully satisfied. Our attachment to things already acquired causes us to fear their loss, and then grief comes when we inevitably do lose them. This state of sorrow seems unavoidable as long as one trusts in this material world alone. What ultimate joy could there be if all the enjoyed things are transitory, not to mention the enjoyer himself?

This prince was of course Siddhartha Gautama-the eventual Lord Buddha, who would bring the world a gospel of deliverance from samsara (delusion). Over the centuries many other great masters would arise and point to the same basic truths: this world is not our true home; there is an ultimate Truth that does not pass away; at the base of this shadow world is a Being that forever shines forth.

In the early 20th century another great soul was on the brink of a spiritual awakening. A young doctor, Kuppuswami by name, was hard at work generously serving the poor and sick in Malaya. Time after time he came up against the reality of the human condition: birth, old age, sickness, suffering and then death. Not even his loving intervention could prevent the inevitable suffering of the human circumstance. He began to look at his own life in a different way: "I too will eventually die. What is this life for? Is it merely for getting, enjoying and then getting more?" He received a book on Vedanta philosophy from a patient, and the profound words went right into his heart. He found himself becoming less and less interested in the passing world show that had held his attention till then.

The need to know the absolute truth was sufficiently compelling that he felt he must leave his previous life and begin a new one dedicated solely to the purpose of Self-realisation. This he would do with a one-pointedness and an unfailing perseverance that was remarkable even among advanced spiritual seekers. The former Dr. Kuppuswami would leave Malaya, come to India, take to the life of a wandering ascetic and eventually, in 1924, come to Rishikesh. There he would meet his guru and be initiated into sannyas with the name "Swami Sivananda." His spiritual quest would culminate in an illumination that would free him of identification with the physical form or mind. He became an enlightened sage whose life and teachings have been a beacon for thousands of seeking souls around the world.

Now what, one may ask, does any of this have to do with us? We may look on the lives of these great people and conclude almost immediately that we are not made of such stuff as they. Their attainments seem to be so otherworldly and impossible for any normal person. It is however this casual avoidance that Swami Sivananda set out to defeat with every means at his disposal. "What one can do, others can also do," he would say with such force that one had no choice but to accept the possibility! He did not leave anyone a place to hide: "Be up and doing," he would urge, "you are in your essence, here and now, divine. Realise this truth and be free."

For many, those words go right into their heart. For others, it seems like an impossible dream that has no relevance at all. One could say that this feeling of hopelessness and doubt, that are so very common in the world today, may be part of our modern condition. We feel somehow that nothing we can do ourselves will get us out of this mess.

In the industrialised countries, many people have reached a level of comfort that leaves very few human needs unsatisfied. Yet for some people living amidst this cornucopia of sense satisfaction, there seems to be a nagging doubt. They seem to be suffering from the "if only..." disease. The "if only..." disease always leaves the patient lacking, no matter what medicine he may get. "If only I can get a better job, a new house, a more loving partner, a better situation, some more money, these pleasures, then I will be happy." Sadly, either the desire is not fulfilled, or ever if it is, after the initial satisfaction, the longing returns. Then a new "if only..." replaces the previous one, and the patient is back to the original state of unrequited longing. On an on this goes, a whole lifetime passes away, and still the fulfillment never comes. There is in so very many people an undercurrent of disappointment-even despair. There seems to be no way out.

What is more, so many of us have a recurring feeling that we really don't know who we truly are. We ask ourselves, "Who am I," and none of the superficial responses fully answer the question. "I am a name, a person with a history who has this family and nationality, I have this job, this wife/husband and children, these interests, this net worth, these possessions," and so on, but somehow we know that these could all be different, and do not touch on the essential self we suspect ourselves to be. This profound feeling of "I am" is not yet reached by the mere names and categories of our day-to-day experience. The longing to know oneself truly, at the greatest depth of one's being, has not been satisfied.

Once a person comes to the point where they truly see their predicament and want to change it in some substantial way, then comes the possibility of real growth. This critical mass of disappointment with a superficial life, sincere desire for change and a will to execute that change is where the spiritual life begins. "Living the spiritual life" could be defined in a nutshell as aspiring to know and live what is ultimately true. It is not a matter of merely feeling better or finding a temporary safe haven from one's problems, or feeling secure in a group or belief. It is rather the sincere longing to lead an authentic life that corresponds to the true nature of things. Once a person has the level of insight that allows him or her to want to leave behind the untrue and discover what is true, well, then maybe half the battle is already won.

For that very fortunate person, we would like to offer some possible suggestions for spiritual practice based on the teachings of Swami Sivananda.


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