Grace and Individual Effort
The most important thing, necessary to an aspirant to spirituality is the aspiration to God, the desire to look for Him and to find Him. There are many religions in the world, countless esoteric groups with different theories, beliefs and doctrines, but all these only help if they succeed to awake in us the desire to know God. They are indeed useful if they can provide the means and ways we can reach Him. They are useless if we only believe in them and adhere in an intellectual manner to their philosophical or theological doctrine. The theories, the consent to a dogma can’t change our character; thus, they can’t offer us the luminous silence of the inner peace.
Ramakrishna tells us the following parable: “A pandit hired a ferryboat to cross the river. He was the only passenger, so he started to talk to the boatman: “Do you know Sankhya or Patanjali’s philosophy?” “No, sir” replied the man. “Do you know Nyaya, Vaiseshika or Vedanta or any other system of thinking?” “No, sir, I don’t know! I’m only a poor man and I earn my living crossing people from one side of the river to the other, by ferry. I don’t know anything about all these things you are talking about.” The pandit felt sorry for the man’s ignorance and, with a superior attitude, started to teach him few of the doctrines. He was very proud of his knowledge and very happy for the chance he had to show it. Suddenly, a storm began and the small boat was impossible to control and manoeuvre. The waters became very agitated and, at some point the boatman asked the passenger: “Sir, do you know how to swim?” “No, I don’t know”, answered the pandit, panicking. “Then, farewell, sir! I’m afraid all your knowledge of the great works won’t help you now, in a moment of need, if you don’t know how to swim!”
Similarly, in the storm and stress of life, the knowledge of the theological doctrine is useless if we didn’t fortify inside learning practically how to enter the Kingdom of the Eternal Peace where God lives.
CHANDOGYA UPANISHADS says:
“The Inner Self within the heart is like a gate which separates the world from That One, Brahman (The Absolute Supreme). The day and the night can’t pass through this gate, and nor can old age, death, sorrows, and pleasure, the good or bad actions. Nothing that is evil can touch That One. Because That One is free of impurities, so the impurities will never touch Him. Therefore, the one who crossed this boundary and realised his Inner Self, will stop being blind, if he is blind; will stop being hurt if he is hurt; will stop suffering if he suffers. When this boundary is crossed, the night becomes day because the world of Brahma is the light itself.”
Therefore, our only effort should be to try to reach the light, the world of Brahman. Our sufferings and sorrows are direct and immediate experiences and therefore only through direct and immediate experimentation of God’s Kingdom we can overcome the sufferings of this world.
“The erudition, the well-built speeches, the power in this world and the easiness in the presentation of the Great Scriptures can bring pleasure to the taught men, but they won’t bring the liberation” says Shankara. A buried treasure won’t be discovered by simply saying the words: “come here!” You must follow the right direction. You must dig and work hard to take away the stones and the ground that cover it and nobody else can do it for you, you have to do it yourself. Similarly, the pure truth of Atman, hidden by maya and the effects of maya (the cosmic illusion) can be reached through meditation, contemplation and other spiritual disciplines that a person who knows Brahman (a realised human being) can recommend you – but it will never be reached through argumentations, regardless how subtle.
Aspiring to God ardently, wishing with all your soul, with all your being the liberation from the sufferings of life – this is the most important thing for an aspirant to spirituality. Of course, everybody would like to be freed from suffering and misery, but exactly like creeping animals, we can see very little beyond our nose, we only see our immediate sorrows and sufferings and we fight to get rid of them only. Our vision is very limited and we don’t even try to reach the root cause, the source of our sufferings. The root cause of all our sufferings is the IGNORANCE and to liberate completely from any sufferings means to achieve the ultimate knowledge – the knowledge of God, who is the unique Reality.
Krishna says in BHAGAVAD – GITA:
“Among the ones who purified themselves by doing only good actions, there are 4 types of people who adore Me: the one who is sick of the world, the one who seeks the knowledge, the one who seeks the happiness and the one who has the spiritual discrimination. The one who is able to discriminate is the highest of all. He gives himself only to Me, with devotion, always and to nobody else. Because I am very dear to that man and he is very dear to Me.”
It doesn’t matter how the aspiration to Divinity first appears, because Sri Krishna also says: “certainly, all these (all the ways the aspiration can appear) are noble”. The important thing is that regardless the reason for which you began your spiritual life and you are looking for God, if your unique aim is God, if you give yourself to Him and only Him, with deep devotion, you will see that all the other desires and aspirations leave you and gradually, the more purified your heart gets, the bigger the aspiration that appears in you; that unique wish, the wish to know God, becomes the most important thing, the central axle of your life. This is the first and probably the only condition that is absolutely necessary to become a true disciple, aspirant to spirituality.
Now, the problem is: “How is our aspiration satisfied? How do we find God?”
The ones who got to know Him declare indubitably that only through His Divine Grace, God makes Himself known to us, the people. There existed in the world few such blessed souls, great illuminated people and they said without ambiguity that it was only and only through His Grace that they realised God. Jesus Christ also says: “You didn’t choose Me, I chose you” and the Upanishads say: “The one who chooses the Inner Self, through its grace, will realise himself”.
But at the same time, these wise men teach us to strive forcibly and to do sustained efforts to find God. They do not teach us to do nothing, to rest and to wait for the Grace to come upon us from the Sky. They insist on the fact that we should do all the efforts, everything that is in our power to find God. Krishna says: “What is the will of man and how will he use it? If it allows the man to focus his powers in order to find his Inner Self, the Immortal Atman and not in order to hide it through ignorance, then the will of man is Atman’s only friend; but the man’s will can also be Atman’s only enemy”.
This apparent contradiction is solved in one of Ramakrishna’s affirmations: “The breeze of the Divine Grace blows on us all the time. Set your sails such as to use this favourable wind.”
This idea is further explained through the following words: “A man can benefit from the grace of his Guru, can have the grace of God and of God’s worshippers, but if he hasn’t got the grace of his own mind, all the others are useless”. The grace of your own mind is necessary to set the sails of your ship such as to receive the comforting breeze of the grace. God is not partial and His Grace is not conditioned, either. It is like in the case of the magnet that orientates the pin: when the metallic pin is covered by impurities, it won’t feel the magnet’s attraction. But once the dirt is removed, the pin will feel the guiding power and will become one with the magnet.
One of the Sanskrit names of God is Hari, which means “the One who steels the hearts”. God is the first attraction in the Universe, but in our ignorance and because of the impurities of our heart, we can’t feel His powerful attraction.
Ramakrishna used to say: “Cry! Cry for God and let your tears wash out the impurities in your heart.” But once again, this strong desire of the heart for God, this ardent aspiration aimed at Him only can’t appear all of a sudden. Therefore, it is necessary to practice the spiritual disciplines and to strive doing a lot of efforts ourselves. Those who practice the spiritual disciplines and who pray and meditate regularly will experience directly the Divine Grace. It is a psychological experience, very similar to the magnet that guides the pin. For instance, although you try to focus your mind upon God, constantly, your mind remains restless. Through a regular practice, however, the longing to see God will increase in your heart but still, sometimes you feel you break your mind on a stonewall. You see nothing but darkness. And suddenly, at some point, from somewhere inside or outside you – you don’t know for sure – you feel an infallible power that guides your mind towards the interior and you go deeper and deeper inside your being, transcending your ego.
There, you are in another space, in the kingdom of the spiritual light where the darkness never penetrates. Following this path, you will have many spiritual visions, you will experience the state of the supra-conscious ecstasy (in its varied forms). You will find yourself face to face with God. But whenever these experiences appear, whenever you are taken up to these high levels of superior consciousness, you realize it is God Himself, through His Divine Grace, that takes you up, attracts you towards Him and gives you ineffable joys and visions.
This is the direct experience of the Grace of God, which only appears when your heart has purified through the practice of the spiritual disciplines. Vyasa, a commentator of Patanjali’s aphorisms, compares the mind with a river that can flow in opposite directions. A stream of the mind flows towards the world while the other flows towards God, towards reaching the liberation from the limits of this world. First of all, there has to be a fight in the man’s life, through the awakening of the spiritual discrimination, in order to defeat the flow of the descending stream, the stream that flows towards the world and its pleasures. When the man is completely victorious in this battle, only then will he be completely aspired by the ascending stream, which leads to God and will experience, thus, the Grace of God. And when he finally becomes conscious of this grace, he enters for good in that kingdom of light that no storm or scission can ever touch.
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