Some aspirants offer material sacrifices to the gods. Others offer selfless service as sacrifice in the fire of Brahman. Some renounce all enjoyment of the senses, sacrificing them in the fire of sense restraint. Others partake of sense objects but offer them in service through the fire of the senses…All these understand the meaning of service and will be cleansed of their impurities. 4.25-26, 30b (Easwaran trans.)
Human beings do not lack the means of spiritual liberation: they only lack the proper resolve to see a particular path through to its conclusion. Shri Krishna here offers many ways (read the entire chapter for more) that individuals can move beyond duality and into the bliss of God-consciousness. Restraint of the senses, control of vital breath, selfless service of others, and study of scriptures can all bring a dedicated yogi to the very edge of human understanding so that enlightenment can dawn. Spiritual aspirants do not see the results that they desire not because these practices are ineffective, but because of wavering consciousness, the propensity to fall in and out of love with Self-realization.
Imagine if, reading a novel, you were to read the first chapter over and over again rather than continuing with the plot. This would quickly get aggravating, because you would never get to the climax of the story. Or imagine if your car tire had gotten stuck in a ditch, and, rather than freeing the stuck wheel, you simply revved the engine over and over again. Such an approach would only lead to an empty fuel tank. Or suppose you wanted to paint a room in your house but used the entire bucket on only one square foot. It would be better not to paint the room at all! Progressing in the spiritual life requires a certain expansiveness, a willingness to pass beyond pre-established boundaries that we set for ourselves.
I am reminded of one of the Analects of Confucius. If I can paraphrase, one of his disciples said, “Master, I want to follow in your way, but it’s just too hard for me.” The Master replied (again, paraphrasing), “You should go on doing good until you fall down in the road. You, on the other hand, are setting the limits beforehand.” In other words, we say that we believe in these lofty spiritual and ethical principles, but when it comes down to living them, we act as though we did not believe. We apportion a small amount of our effort, but not all of it.
One of my favorite poems is by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the first stanza reads, “My own heart let me have more pity on; Let / me live to my sad self hereafter kind, / Charitable; not live this tormented mind / With this tormented mind tormenting yet.” And later down in the poem, a great phrase reads, “leave comfort root-room.” I think that we do ourselves a disservice by penning spirituality into this notion of what we think it should look like and how it fits into some flow-chart of an ideal life. The roots of comfort just need a little more room to grow.
Using probably way too many metaphors, let’s return to the car image above. We can keep doing the same spiritual regimen over and over again, expecting always to get better results from the same thing. This is the “revving the engine” part. But to really get unstuck, we have to use a jack or wedge some boards under the tires. This is where the Satsanga and the teachers enter the picture. We don’t have to go it alone: others have tread the path before us, and others are with us along the way. We just need to band together to increase our overall capability for moving beyond the difficult spots.
I think that some of the difficult spots arise from a certain attitude of mind that is part grumbling and part procrastination. We say to ourselves, “I will make room for meditation (or yoga, or writing, or gardening, or my marriage, etc.) as soon as I have a little more money in my bank account” or “as soon as the kids are out of school” or “as soon as I get my career up and running.” Meanwhile, days, months, years, and decades pass by. There is always time to start again, and yet there is not always time to start again. Circumstances will never be better than they are right now.
I don’t mean this as one big guilt trip, but only as a reminder to 1.) get started and 2.) keep going. Amazing experiences await if we can tune into non-duality, into the unity at the heart of everything. It’s not here tomorrow or next week. It’s here now. In the state that Shri Krishna describes in chapter four, work and contemplation are one, self and other are one, and the world and heaven are one. It takes a little bit of effort to realize this state, but it’s definitely worth it. It is also easier in a way than the perpetual anxiety that characterizes everyday existence. So we should believe in the effectiveness of the practices, and believe in them enough to just keep going.