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Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind: Exercises from the World's Religions to Cultivate Kindness, Love, Joy, Peace, Vision, Wisdom, and Generosity
C H A P T E R 1
Unveiling the Sacred
When you seek God, Seek Him in your heart.
-Yûnus Emre, Islamic sage
Life is not always easy, but it can be ecstatic. How to manage the difficulties and taste the ecstasy is a central challenge of life and a goal of any spiritual practice.
The difficulties are many. Even the most fortunate of us suffers times of sorrow and sickness, disappointment and despair. All of us know fear and frustration, sadness and depression. Sooner or later, we all watch loved ones die, and we eventually die ourselves. This is hardly a new discovery. More than two thousand years ago the Buddha centered his teaching on the recognition that difficulty is part of life, while from Israel, the Jewish Psalms wailed forth their lament:
Our years come to an end like a sigh. . . . Their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone.
Life is difficult to understand. We are born dazed and helpless, finding ourselves in a world overflowing with mystery. Yet our world is only a speck of cosmic dust in a remote uncharted corner of a vast, unfathomable universe. No wonder life feels so mysterious and we sometimes reel in bewilderment.
Yet life can be exciting and joyful. There are countless wonders to explore and people to meet, and the world holds places of breathless beauty. We all have opportunities to love and play, to learn and heal. Our lives are rich with opportunities and our challenge is to live them to the full. All of us can be the creative artists of our lives.
Life can be ecstatic. There are experiences so profound and meaningful that life and the world seem nothing less than sacred. There are moments of such bliss that they outshine ordinary pleasures as the sun does a firefly, moments of such love and compassion that we fall helplessly in love with all creation. A single such experience can transform your life forever.
Richard Bucke was such a person. Born in 1837, he was raised on a remote Canadian farm. At age seventeen he set off wandering throughout the United States, working as a gardener, miner, and Mississippi steamboat deckhand. Seeking more adventure, he signed up to help drive a wagon train 1,200 miles across open country to Utah, and he barely survived starvation and multiple Indian attacks. Undaunted, he decided to try his hand at mining in Nevada, but then his luck ran out. In midwinter his friends died and he and one other survivor were left alone in the wilderness. They made a desperate gamble and set out for the West Coast. It was a horrendous journey: His companion died and at the last moment Bucke was rescued by a mining party. But his feet were frozen; one had to be partly amputated, the other completely. At age twenty-one he was maimed for life.
But that year he also received his inheritance and used it to put himself through medical school. He began an entirely new life and rapidly distinguished himself as a prominent psychiatrist.
At age thirty his life took yet another turn. A visitor to his house quoted some verses by the poet Walt Whitman, and their effect on him was dramatic. He became increasingly reflective and in 1872, at age thirty-five, he had an experience that utterly transformed his life, and that has affected hundreds of thousands of his readers. The introduction to his famous book Cosmic Consciousness tells us that he had spent the evening with two friends reading the poetry of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Browning and Whitman. At midnight they parted and he began the long drive home in his carriage. He was still under the influence of the poets' ideas, and his mind was calm and happy. Suddenly without warning:
All at once I found myself wrapped in a flame-colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next, I knew that the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that . . . all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain.
So profound was the impact that Bucke devoted the rest of his life to researching such experiences.
Obviously, it would be wonderful to have a way to deal with all kinds of experiences: sorrow, mystery, happiness, and ecstasy. Our lives would be transformed if we could learn to heal and to withstand sorrow better, to uncover meaning in the midst of mystery, to cultivate happiness, and to invite ecstasy. Fortunately, these are the goals of spiritual practices, and these practices offer a life-changing feast of benefits.
Benefits of Spiritual Practices
We need to distinguish between two crucial terms: religion and spirituality. The word religion has many meanings; in particular it implies a concern with the sacred and supreme values of life. The term spirituality, on the other hand, refers to direct experience of the sacred. Spiritual practices are those that help us experience the sacred- that which is most central and essential to our lives- for ourselves.
Psychological and Spiritual Benefits
The ultimate aim of spiritual practices is awakening; that is, to know our true Self and our relationship to the sacred. However, spiritual practices also offer numerous other gifts along the way. For thousands of years wise men and women from all traditions have sung the praises of the many benefits that flow into the lives of practitioners as they progress along the spiritual path. Gradually, the heart begins to open, fear and anger melt, greed and jealousy dwindle, happiness and joy grow, love flowers, peace replaces agitation, concern for others blossoms, wisdom matures, and both psychological and physical health improve. Virtually all aspects of our lives are touched and transformed in some way.
In the past, such claims had to be taken on faith, if they were believed at all. Now the climate has changed dramatically. Out of modern laboratories has poured a flood of data that support many ancient claims and demonstrate psychological and physical benefits, some of them undreamed of by the practitioners of old.
Among psychological benefits, the relaxation response, which reduces anxiety and develops peace, is the best known. Other effects are even more exciting, including intellectual gifts of enhanced creativity, intelligence, and academic achievement. Spiritual practitioners experience greater self-control and self-actualization. They develop greater sensitivity, deeper empathy, and greater marital satisfaction. They use less alcohol and drugs and suffer fewer conflicts around sex and aggression.
Physical benefits are also dramatic. Spiritual practices can reduce stress, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. They may help alleviate insomnia, muscle spasms, and diseases ranging from migraine to chronic pain. They may even reduce the effects of aging and lengthen the life span. One Harvard study showed that nursing home patients who were in their eighties when they first began meditation felt happier, functioned better, and lived longer than nonmeditators.
The Greatest of All Discoveries
Over time, spiritual practices work their transformative wonders on our hearts, minds, and lives. As the heart opens and the mind clears, we see further and further into the boundless depths of the mind.
There, within ourselves, we finally find the most profound, the most meaningful, and the most important discovery any human being can make. Within ourselves we find our deepest self, our true Self, and recognize that we are not only more than we imagined but more than we can imagine. We see that we are a creation of the sacred, intimately and eternally linked to the sacred, and forever graced and embraced by the sacred.
This is the greatest of all discoveries, the secret of all secrets, the priceless gift that is both the source and goal of the great religions. This is the aim of all our seeking, the answer to a lifetime of longing, the cause of the mystic's bliss, the source of overwhelming and enduring joy. This is the central message at the heart of the great religions and the basis for their ecstatic cries, such as those in the Western traditions.
The kingdom of heaven is within you. ( Jesus, Christianity)
Those who know themselves know their Lord. (Mohammad, Islam)
He is in all, and all is in Him. ( Judaism)
Centuries earlier, similar words were already pouring from ecstatic Chinese practitioners.
Those who know completely their own nature, know heaven. (Mencius, Confucianism)
In the depths of the soul, one sees the Divine, the One. (The Chinese Book of Changes )
Indian traditions also offer the same gift, the recognition that, in their words,
Atman [individual consciousness] and Brahman [universal consciousness] are one. (Hinduism)
Look within, you are the Buddha. (Buddhism)
Ecstatic recognitions such as these represent the deepest goal and fullest flowering of spiritual development. Though the words may differ, the experiences that underlie them point to commonalities among the world's religions, chief among which are the perennial philosophy and perennial practices.
The Perennial Philosophy and Practices
Thanks to global communication, for the first time in history, we have all the world's religions, their wisdom and their practices, available to us. Unprecedented numbers of people are now sampling practices from multiple traditions. Yet the sheer richness of possibilities has left many people confused, even dazed, by the variety of apparently competing claims and practices. What do the different traditions have in common?
Beneath the hundreds of different cultures, claims, and customs, there lies a common core of both wisdom and practice at the heart of each authentic tradition. By "authentic tradition," I mean one capable of offering a direct experience of the sacred, and of fostering true spiritual growth and maturity in its practitioners.
What an amazing discovery: For thousands of years countless people have fought, tortured, and killed over the differences between the world's religions. Differences certainly exist, as a glance at any newspaper makes painfully clear, yet now we are increasingly recognizing similarities and a common core.
The Perennial Philosophy
Scholars call the essential, common core of religious wisdom the perennial wisdom or perennial philosophy. Why perennial? Because these profound insights into life have endured across centuries and cultures and have been taught by the great sages of all times.
Developed over thousands of years, the perennial philosophy is a treasure house of humankind's accumulated wisdom. Vast in scope, profound in depth, it offers numberless insights into the nature of life and love, health and happiness, suffering and salvation.
At its heart lie four crucial claims- actually observations, since they are based on direct insights by advanced spiritual practitioners- about reality and human nature.
1) There are two realms of reality. The first is the everyday realm with which we are all familiar, the world of physical objects and living creatures. This is the realm accessible to us via sight and sound and studied by sciences such as physics and biology.
But beneath these familiar phenomena lies another realm far more subtle and profound: a realm of consciousness, spirit, Mind, or Tao. This world cannot be known through the physical senses and only indirectly through the physical instruments of science. Moreover, this realm creates and embraces the physical realm and is its source. This domain is not limited by space or time or physical laws, since it creates space, time, and physical laws, and hence it is unbounded and infinite, timeless and eternal.
2) Human beings partake of both realms. We are not only physical but also spiritual beings. We have bodies, but we also have, at the core of our being, in the depths of our minds, a center of transcendent awareness. This center is described as pure consciousness, mind, spirit, or Self and is known by such names as the neshamah of Judaism, the soul or divine spark of Christianity, the atman of Hinduism, or the buddha nature of Buddhism. This divine spark is intimately related to- some traditions even say inseparable from and identical with- the sacred ground or foundation of all reality. We are not divorced from the sacred but eternally and intimately linked to it.
3) Human beings can recognize their divine spark and the sacred ground that is its source. What this implies, and this is absolutely crucial, is that the claims of the perennial philosophy do not have to be accepted blindly. Rather, each of us can test them for ourselves and decide their validity based on our direct experience. Although the soul or innermost Self, being nonphysical, cannot be known by the senses or the instruments of science, it can be known by careful introspection.
This is not necessarily easy. Although anyone can be graced with spontaneous glimpses, clear sustained vision of our sacred depths usually requires significant practice to clarify awareness sufficiently. This is the purpose of spiritual practice.
When the mind is still and clear, we can have a direct experience of our Self. This is not a concept of, nor an intellectual theory about, the Self. Rather, it is an immediate knowing, a direct intuition in which one not only sees the divine spark but also identifies with and recognizes that one is the spark. Sages from Judaism and Sufism, from Plato to Buddha, from Eckhart to Lao Tsu have agreed on this. "Not by reasoning is this apprehension attainable," say the Hindu Upanishads, while the famous Christian mystic St. John of the Cross wrote that
the arguments of the wise
Are unable to grasp it. . . .
And this exalted wisdom
Is of such excellence,
That no faculty of science
Can hope to reach it
Compared to this direct realization of the sacred, mere book learning and theoretical knowledge are very poor substitutes, as far removed from direct experience as a text on human reproduction is from the embrace of a lover. The Buddha drove the point home by comparing a person satisfied with mere theoretical understanding to a herdsman of other people's cattle, while Mohammad was even more blunt, comparing such a person to an ass carrying a load of books.
4) The perennial philosophy's fourth claim is that realizing our spiritual nature is the summum bonum: the highest goal and greatest good of human existence. Beside this, all other goals pale; all other delights only partly satisfy. No other experience is so ecstatic, no other attainment so rewarding, no other goal so beneficial to oneself or others. So say the wise of diverse traditions and ages.
Again, this is not wild dogma to be accepted merely on the word of others or on blind faith. Rather, it is an expression of the direct experience of those who have tasted these fruits for themselves. Most importantly, it is an invitation to all of us to test and taste for ourselves.
If we distill these four claims down to their essential essence, what do we find? The central ringing cry of the perennial philosophy is this: We have underestimated ourselves tragically. We are sadly mistaken when we see ourselves as merely temporary bodies instead of timeless spirit; as separate, suffering selves instead of blissful Buddhas; as meaningless blobs of matter instead of blessed children of God.
The words differ from one tradition to another, but their central message is the same: You are more than you think! Look deep within, and you will find that your ego is only a tiny wave atop the vast ocean that is your real Self. Look within, and at the center of your mind, in the depths of your soul, you will find your true Self, that this Self is intimately linked to the sacred, and that you share in the unbounded bliss of the sacred.
This recognition is the goal of the great religions and it is known by names such as salvation and satori, enlightenment and liberation, fana and nirvana, awakening and Ruah Haqodesh. But whatever the name, the great religions all exist to help us discover our true Self and our true relationship to the sacred. This discovery, they agree, is the supreme joy and greatest goal of human life.
The Perennial Practices
How to achieve this discovery of our true self is the central question of life, and it is here that the great religions offer their greatest gift. Each of them contains a set of practices designed to help us reach this goal. Whether they be the commandments and contemplations of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, the yogas of Hinduism, or the disciplines of Taoism, each tradition offers spiritual practices that awaken.
Among the many spiritual practices, there are seven that are common to authentic religions and that we can therefore call perennial practices. These perennial practices were discovered by the religious founders and have been used by millions of men and women around the world. Now their universal nature can be recognized. Essential Spirituality explains the seven perennial practices and offers exercises for applying them in all aspects of life so that you, too, can enjoy the many benefits they offer.