If only we could say honestly and without shame, “I engage spirituality as a hobby,” or “I want a spiritual practice that will give me some peace of mind but without any commitment or discipline,” or “I’d like to keep spirituality as my mistress but maintain comfort and security as my spouse,” or “I want to be seen as a spiritual man or woman because that will make me more sexy.” If only we could simply admit, “I’m a New Ager,” “I’m a fashionable Buddhist,” “I’m an imitation Hindu,” “I’m a wannabe guru,” or “I’m a bliss chick.” Or perhaps we could use more simple, straightforward language, such as “I’m a serious spiritual aspirant,” “I’m a seeker of moderate interest,” or “I’m a part-time, casual spiritual tourist.” It is not wrong to have such an approach to spiritual development. We grow from where we are, and if we pretend to be somewhere we are not and try to move forward, we are likely to travel in a very crooked line and become more confused than necessary.
I think it is fair to assume that almost everyone has a deep desire to be happy, to find meaning, to suffer less. And certain approaches to spiritual teachings and practices, as well as intelligent approaches to psychological growth, can help us toward that end.
For many of us, however, an unrelenting need from within pounds at the doors of our conscience demanding that we go deeper. All the great masters who have dared stretch their consciousness to its furthest capacities say that the entirety of the path is traveled along a razor’s edge, and it is a road of no return. They say that the price of truth is greater than we could ever imagine upon entering the path, far beyond what most of us would consider paying.
In Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras it is explained that there are three basic types of spiritual seekers—mild, medium, and intense—and that within each of these categories are three subcategories: mildly-mild, medium-mild, intensely-mild; mildly-medium, medium-medium, intensely-medium; mildly-intense, medium-intense, and intensely-intense.5 In other words, there are roughly nine levels of spiritual seekers, and to situate ourselves correctly on this spectrum is not an easy thing. Why? Because our ideas about ourselves are often inaccurate, and what we would like to believe about ourselves is different from what is true of us. On the spiritual-seeker scale, most of us evaluate ourselves far higher than we actually are.
It is a natural tendency to think of ourselves as intensely-intense spiritual practitioners, or at least mildly-intense, not only because of an egoic tendency to overestimate our degree of knowledge and wisdom but because most of us in the West have no reference for what authentic spiritual attainment is and the sacrifices it involves. I believe, for example, that Ramana Maharshi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, J. Krishnamurti, and U. G. Krishnamurti were intensely-intense practitioners. So are two female Tibetan Buddhist spiritual teachers I know: Tenzin Palmo, who did a twelve-year solo retreat in a cave in the Himalayas before she undertook the job of creating a woman’s monastery in India; and Robina Courtin, who teaches Tibetan Buddhism to prisoners on death row. My own teacher, Lee Lozowick, who has lived among his students and is available to them almost all day every day—and who has served his own guru ceaselessly without a day of vacation in more than thirty years—is clearly an intense spiritual practitioner. Understanding and appreciating the lives of such individuals tends to cast a more accurate light upon our own degree of spiritual achievement.
When we are willing to be where we are rather than where we wish we were, there is great possibility for growth and for attracting the help we need to deepen the intensity of our aspiration. Our degree of commitment to ourselves and to our spiritual potentialities can grow and change throughout our lives. Many of us simply have no idea what is possible in terms of spiritual development. One aspect of the fruition of spiritual practice is the understanding of how vast and even endless the possibilities of spiritual development are. For how can we aspire to something we don’t even know exists?
Every one of us is on the spiritual path, whether we know it or not—and most of us do not. The fact of our incarnation implies that we are on a great journey. Whether that journey is just one of becoming conscious, whether we have been disillusioned countless times by ourselves, paths, and teachers but are still hanging in there, or whether we are deeply committed to our practice, the question, “What do I want?” still applies.
Many of the great Vedic texts begin with the term atha. From the subtle language of Sanskrit, atha is frequently translated into English as “now.” But atha really suggests that every now in which we find ourselves is a moment that has never existed before and will never exist again, and that in this moment we begin again. Even if we have been searching, meditating, and engaging spiritual practice for years or decades, we choose in each moment to begin again. We open ourselves once again to infinite possibility, and we courageously, and as consciously as possible, step into the unknown.
Excerpted from Eyes Wide Open Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path by Mariana Caplan (Sounds True, October 2009). Reprinted with permission by Sounds True.