Perennial joy or passing pleasure: Why it is so easy to fall off the spiritual path

Sharp like a razor’s edge, the sages say,  

Is the path, difficult to traverse.’ —  Yama to Nachiketa; Katha Upanishad


You’ve probably heard the saying that the spiritual path is ‘just like a razor’s edge’. Already the Upanishadic sages spoke about the difficulties of negotiating the spiritual path, and I’ve heard numerous teachers talk about this, too. In the past, I’ve always taken this to mean that it’s a hard path, but without necessarily understanding why or without having a direct experience of the razor’s edge. I’d also often heard that Gurus test their disciples rigorously before bestowing higher teachings and often wondered what these tests actually consist of.

Recently, towards the end of a three month long anusthan (intensive practice of a particular sadhana), I had a first-hand experience of such a test by a spiritual Master and it truly and perhaps for the first time made me fully understand the famous saying. Without going into too many details, let’s just say that my resolve and my commitment to my spiritual path were rigorously tested with a life situation that had all of the abilities to distract me and throw me off-balance. This experience led me to reflect on the spiritual path as a razor’s edge and why these tests are posed to us by the Masters.

Indeed, why are the Masters testing us? Shouldn’t it be enough that we’re already on the spiritual path and shouldn’t they support us rather than throwing tests and obstacles our way? Alas, it’s not that simple. The Masters, in their boundless love and commitment to seeing us grow, are doing this to test our focus and our ability, to see whether we are serious and actually worthy of the higher teachings. To be worthy means having developed sufficient willpower to withstand the many distractions and temptations that flank the path and that can so easily destroy all of our spiritual attainments. In yogic terms, this is called vairagya, and it literally means dispassion. Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad demonstrates vairagya par excellence when he refuses everything that Yama, the Lord of Death offers him – riches, beautiful women, fame, a long life – in order to learn what really matters to him: the secret of death. Yama tries to dissuade him with many worldly temptations until he is finally satisfied that Nachiketa is a worthy student filled with nothing but the burning desire for liberation, and thus agrees to teach him.

A Master has to be really sure how strong our commitment to achieving our goal of Self-Realization is. Without one-pointed commitment and focus that border on desperation, the goal is almost impossible to attain. The path is tough as it requires incredible amounts of inner purifications, and living in the world can be so much easier. The tests also ensure that we are not going to abuse the spiritual powers that eventually come with success in sadhana. Many aspirants get seduced by the siddhis, the supernatural abilities that come to them with intense practice: clairvoyance, charisma, ability to attract wealth or the opposite sex, and so on. All too often, a sadhaka or spiritual leader falls off the path because they still harbour latent desire for power, sex or money (which really needs transcending), and this can lead them to manipulate and even abuse others. This must never be done – spiritual powers must not be used for selfish purposes, but only for pure and selfless motives such as helping others.

The more advanced we get in our spiritual practice, the harder the tests become. The good thing about this is that you notice that you’re actually making progress. So what might such a test look like? You can be sure that it is your Achilles’ heel, i.e. your greatest weakness. For some people this might be money, for others it might be sex, yet for others it might be power or fame.It will be the very thing that you haven’t yet transcended and that which has the potential to make you sway from your path if Yama came and offered it to you.If you don’t like chocolate, the test is hardly going to be a chocolate cake!

To use an example, when Swami Rama of the Himalayas was a young man called Bhole Baba, his Master assigned him a practice which consisted of repeating the Gayatri mantra 2.4 million times in the course of sixteen months. The Master drew a line charged with protective spiritual energy around Bhole’s hut and instructed him not to cross it except to perform his morning and evening ablutions. Bhole began his practice, and soon the people of the city came to know about him and began to visit him, impressed by how calm and tranquil he was, and at the same time how vibrant and energetic. The less attention Bhole paid to visitors, the more impressed they were. But there was also a group of hecklers who came to visit him, determined to disturb him.

bhole baba

The young Swami Rama

One day, after he’d been doing his practice for eleven months, they challenged him to a debate. Bhole remained silent, but they persisted. Finally he lost his temper, crossed the boundary line, caught hold of someone’s neck, and pushed him toward the Ganga. The hecklers dispersed, but soon afterward the pandit who supplied Bhole with food appeared and handed him a telegram from his Master. It read: ‘You have ruined your practice. Start over.’ A similar incident happened a second time after many months of Bhole having done the same practice, and it was only at the third attempt that he managed to complete it. Anger was his weakness, and only with a lot of practice he managed to control it.

Another common example is that of (often male) spiritual leaders who end up having sex with their students. We’ve all heard these stories, and my Gurudev once said ‘at some point, lust is going to come knocking at your door.’ Just when you think you’ve made progress and you’re about to become enlightened, a huge temptation or a highly negative situation will come your way that will push you to the very edge. And to stay on a razor’s edge or on a tightrope, you need incredible amounts of focus, concentration and skill. If you’re on it and your attention is even slightly diverted by a beautiful woman or sparkling diamonds, you are going to fall. You might even break your neck. At the very least, it is going to take some time for you to get on the razor’s edge again.

So we have to be very aware of what Swami Rama calls the ‘four primitive fountains’, the driving forces of humanity. These fountains are food, sex, sleep and self-preservation, and they determine most, if not all of our actions. Sure, we all have these drives and they are natural, but on the spiritual path our goal is to become free of them to the extent that we are not ruled by them. We still have to sleep, but do we have to sleep eight hours a night? Could we not instead learn to sleep five hours of better quality sleep without all of the tossing, turning and dreaming that is actually unnecessary? We still have to eat, but we can also learn to increase our intake of prana, the life force, and therefore eat less – and most importantly, not eat motivated by greed, boredom or lust. Yes, the sexual drive is a very strong force, but how about learning to sublimate it and taking the kundalini force upwards to sahasrara chakra rather than downwards to mooladhara chakra where our vital energies get wasted? Or alternatively, making the sexual act into a prayer and meditation that helps rather than hinders our spiritual practice?

The question for me as a sadhaka is always: ‘does this help or disturb my spiritual practice? Does it distract me from my goal?’ Of course, spiritual practice is not the end in itself – the goal of realizing the true Self is. But sadhana is the means to realizing this goal. And at this stage, whatever distracts me from this goal has to leave my life, unless I can learn not to be distracted by it.

All this doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy life- not at all! But whatever we do in life, we have to learn to keep our minds focused on what matters. The trick of inner renunciation is to keep our minds fixed on the ultimate Reality while living in the world, though this can be hard and it is all too easy to forget who we truly are while entangled in worldly enjoyments. Sadhana keeps bringing us back to our centre, it shows us what is right for us and what isn’t, and that is why it is important to keep a regular meditation schedule.

I can now vouch for the sharpness of the razor’s edge. Let’s just say that I failed the test that my Master posed me. Though I knew in my heart that I was being tested and had great moments of clarity during meditation, I still fell off the razor’s edge. Admittedly, it was a tough test, but still I failed it. And I might even fail it again. But on the positive side, I realized my mistake immediately. I recognized my weakness clearly, which has brought me more humility, caution and a better understanding of what to look out for in the future. So, even though it can be hard sometimes, don’t become disheartened or beat yourself up when something throws you off the path momentarily. It’s normal. We’re human. The important thing is to pick yourself up again and to start over with greater zest. The moment we don’t repeat a mistake, we are free.

‘Perennial joy or passing pleasure? This is the choice one is to make always.’ – Yama to Nachiketa in ‘Katha Upanishad’

My book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books and BPI India

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