Beware of the spiritual shortcut

On the spiritual path, it is tempting to assume that having a deep spiritual experience is a sign that we have made it. Sharing her own story, Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati tells us why that is a mistake

“You are the stupidest smart person I know.” My Guru’s words cut straight through the spiritual intoxication I had been under. 20 years later I can still feel the sting of truth. With the shock of a band-aid being quickly ripped off, his words unveiled the truth: that the only way my inner wounds could heal would be to expose them to power of grace rather than keep them covered up with the ‘band-aid’ of bliss.

I had been living a life of spiritual ecstasy on the banks of the sacred Ganga River for several months at that point and undergoing indescribable experiences of divine Oneness. I had tears of bliss streaming down my face and felt touched by a power and presence I had never imagined possible. Despite it all, I had, just on that day in December 1996, reacted to a situation as an ‘unawake’, victimised, ego-centric child.

What had happened?

When my Guru used the words “stupid” and “smart” to slap me awake, He was not referring to a lack, or abundance, of knowledge, ability and talent, nor was He referring to my grades by which I had always judged my scholastic prowess.

Rather, He was referring to the presence or absence of gyan, of real wisdom in my life. The paradox of his statement made it clear that although I was “smart” both in the traditional IQ-testing way and also in the deeper way of having experiential understanding of the Truth, nonetheless I was still “stupid” in my inability to bring that wisdom and spiritual experience into my patterned habits of reaction and victimisation. I may have had the wisdom and the experience, but I was still unable to use it consistently as the foundation of my actions and reactions.

Living an unaware life

Before coming to India, I had graduated with a degree in psychology from Stanford University and was enrolled in a psychology PhD programme; consequently, I spent most of my time entrenched in psychological study. When I came to India and was touched by the presence of the Divine, I discovered peace, bliss and ecstasy more real than I had ever imagined. All the psychological theories, processes and insights paled in comparison to the magnitude of the experiences I was given. It was as though the waters of Ganga rushed over my own challenges and neuroses just as easily as She rushes over the rocks in the riverbed, carrying away remnants of suffering from the past.

Then, the ‘incident’ occurred and I burst into tears like a wounded eight year old. Suddenly my tears were not of joy, peace, or Truth, but of fear, grasping and yearning. I was not a 25-year-old swimming in spiritual ecstasy—I was a scared, wounded child. And all it took was for someone to act in a way that pushed my buttons.

As my Guru stared at me with a mixture of compassion, omniscience and incredulousness, He refused to let me sink back into my well-rehearsed role of victim. Rather, He forced me to really look at what was going on. How could I be so smart and so stupid at the same time?

I’m not ‘done’ yet

Jack Kornfield, a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher coined the phrase ‘spiritual bypass’. It is a very tempting short-cut to what appears to be an enlightened life. The concept of a spiritual bypass is that when one has deep spiritual experiences of Oneness, it is very easy to think that one is ‘done’ as far as inner work is concerned. If I’ve merged into the experience of Samadhi, bliss, and union in my meditation or prayers or in the presence of my Guru, then I’m ‘done’. My only goal becomes having that experience more frequently and for longer periods of time.

This is fine if one is living in the jungle, doing nothing but meditation and interacting with no one. Problems arise when one lives in the world and has to relate to other people—all of whom have their own issues, fears, egos and desires. Suddenly and tragically for many of us, we realise that having had the deep, ecstatic experience of the divine does not necessarily make us any more equipped to respond to our family members and colleagues with love, compassion and understanding or to overcome the neuroses we’ve had since childhood.

Interconnected, not exempt

While the spiritual path and the psychological path are deeply interwoven and interconnected, one does not substitute or exempt us from the other. Just as a deep psychological process, full of insight and growth, is a far cry from a deep spiritual awakening, similarly the experience of Grace does not exempt us from having to look at our own anger, jealousies, egos and fears.

Many of us know people who do rounds of japa on their mala every day, or spend hours in meditation, and yet who are provoked by the slightest insult or upset. We see people who perform extensive pujas and yet are not able to get along with the people around them, or who abuse alcohol or drugs or gamble or have promiscuous sex or simply suffer from insecurity and depression.

Meditation, prayers, japa, puja, kirtan are all matchlessly wonderful ways of connecting to the divine, of experiencing the wholeness, the completeness, the fullness and perfection within the Self. But, in most cases, they are neither instant cures nor are they magic wands that make our problems go away. What they give us is a palpable understanding that we are more than our childhoods, our addictions, our depression and certainly more than our fallible body. They connect us to a Self that was never abused, betrayed, abandoned or deprived. They give us that touch of the sun’s warmth, which makes a tree defy gravity and grow horizontally rather than vertically just to get nearer to that light. But we have to do the same work as the tree—we have to continue to grow!

Behind the veil

Psychological work without spiritual experience can become a quagmire of darkness. It is easy to sink into the quicksand of our own histories, wounded identities, fears and desires, to live and relive them over and over again. Yet, a fearless inquiry into our own motivations, reactions, compulsions and anxieties is a great companion on the spiritual path. A willingness to look with honest inquiry into our own failings while simultaneously being aware of our ultimate divinity opens the door to a much deeper experience of the Self.

On every spiritual path being present is hailed as the magic key. Whether it’s a path focussed directly on awareness, like vipassana and insight-based meditation, or whether it’s a path more focussed on bhakti, gyan or karma, in every path, we are exhorted to “be present” and “stay in the present moment.” When we are present, we are aware. When we are aware, we can heal. When we are aware, we witness the anger, witness the ego, witness the longing, the grasping, the pushing, the slipping into familiar habits and roles, witness the repetition of decades-old scripts. None of it is wrong or bad or impure. It is merely ignorance or, as my Guru said so unabashedly, “stupidity”. Fortunately, that ignorance has been, in my experience, very much like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz, terrifying when veiled, huge when projected, but human and ever so manageable when brought into the light.

This was first published in the February 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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