the promise of practice

A storm roared through the ashram the other night, full of flashing lightning and howling winds that uprooted trees. The next day, a rainbow appeared and the sky was beautiful, soft and glowing. The forces of nature can be both violent and beautiful. How do we make sense of these contradictions? We live on this Earth, which is very concrete and often full of destruction and despair, yet we are striving for a spiritual life, which is very ephemeral, very full of hope.

Lately I have been rereading Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, a series of Buddhist teachings translated by W.Y. Evans-Wentz. When I first read them, I had just begun my yoga practices, and the words struck my heart. I knew what they said was right. The one line that has stuck in my mind ever since is this: Having obtained the difficult-to-obtain, free and endowed human body, it would be a cause of regret to fritter life away.

What action is needed to make our life worthwhile? There is a need for spiritual discipline and devotional practice. However, an important aspect of any spiritual practice is taking action at the end. You have to say, "I am going to put this into my life." That's the part people forget about their practice, whether it be Karma Yoga or Hatha Yoga, meditation or mantra. How can this really become part of my life?

In order to say, "I will take responsibility for my ideals and ethics; I am going to put these spiritual values into my life," you may have to change what you think being "spiritual" is. Often people do a practice, and they think that's the end of the spiritual discipline part. They can become very holy and sanctimonious. So, you can do a practice for hours and hours, but you may not really know what you've accomplished. We need other people and we need other situations to test it out. Are we truly patient? Are we truly caring about somebody? How do you talk to them, work with them? Can you take other people's opinions; can you open your mind to a place where you are receptive to another idea, or are able to see that someone may need your help?

We live in the world with other people and it is usually the small things that interfere with the calm practised mind and cause a storm of emotions. It's the reaction to the mess of dirty dishes someone else left on the table, the inopportune time someone barges into your workspace, the driver in the next lane who doesn't signal. They all expose your ability to control your mind. Everyone meets a crisis those little disturbances and also the large life events that breaks down the resistance for a more receptive attitude. The effort we put into reflection on these events helps us to understand our reactions and to change our way of approaching people consciously.

Leading a spiritual life, however you establish that in an ashram, at your workplace, in a yoga group, in a family is going to positively affect the world around you. You create places of Light, places where people are intentionally bringing the Light to Earth.

It takes strength and courage to go against the mainstream of life, which is now unfortunately mired in apathy and comfort. It takes courage to say, I want to reflect on my life, I want to clarify what my words and actions are. In this way, leading a spiritual life can be a political act. You are making a statement that you want more than a life that is driven by social pressure, instincts and common habits. Can you take a stand in your life, or for a principle that you believe in? Can you build a commitment to something other than yourself?

We are looking for the practices to make changes and take action. We are looking for how the mind works, how the heart opens. It always has to come back to the connection within so that we can see the reflection without.

A lightning strike will light up the whole sky and a small candle will light up a very dark room, so there is hope with each effort we make to incorporate Light into everything we do. The vibration of spiritual practice is a blessing and an inspiration to all. Having obtained the difficult-to-obtain, free and endowed human body, it is up to us to accept the challenge to change, to open our hearts and minds, and to live our lives fully.
Swami Radhananda is president and spiritual director of Yasodhara Ashram in British Columbia, Canada.

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