Every society and culture through the ages has had its own moral laws. The moral ecology shaped by these laws is the set of norms, beliefs, assumptions and behaviours that emerge at that specific time and define the criteria for right action. These criteria encourage us to be a certain kind of person, and the society that we come from supports that.
However, at some point there comes a time when the societal system we are a part of pushes us in a direction that does not support either our internal or our external life. Thomas Merton says that we experience a sense of estrangement “from the inner ground of meaning and of love”1 – which then provokes a yearning within us to become one with the One. When we realize that we are out of balance we begin to ask the questions we hope will satisfy us at the deepest level of our being, and will make visible the road to our internal life.
Masters, mystics and holy people from all philosophical traditions – be they Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or followers of Sant Mat – propose that the foundation for becoming one with God, for realizing God, is formed in very large part by our behaviour. Our behaviour is informed by the moral culture of our time and is supported by our own internal ‘landscape’. For some religions the way to discover this internal landscape is through prayer; for some it's penances, austerities, etc. In reality, however, our behaviour is the result of the basic beliefs we hold dearest and closest to our heart, and how we translate those beliefs into our every day actions. And how we behave and what kind of human being we are does matter!
In Yoga and the Bible the author says:
No questions of greater importance confront a human being than those of discovering who and what he really is, what place he occupies in the universe, what his relationship is to the Supreme Creator, and what path he should follow to “do the Father’s will” and gain … salvation.2
In other words, God-realization can’t be had for the asking, can’t be won by our dazzling smile; God-realization can only be attained through the day-to-day active expression of the basic assumptions that form and support our primary goal in life. That assumption is: We don’t live for happiness alone, we live for something greater. This is what the masters mean when they tell us that the entire purpose of the human form, of our existence here on earth, is to become one with the Lord. To be that type of human being who shapes our life in such a manner that everything we do points us in the direction and sustains our goal of God-realization.
So, Master’s repeated suggestion that we become good human beings takes on both a practical and powerful focus on a daily basis in our life. We recognize that the road to God-realization cannot be a hedonistic one, but rather, as John Stuart Mill posits, a road on which “We have accepted the responsibility to become more moral over time, where our goal is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul, and is nourished with the joy that is a by- product of a successful moral struggle.”3
This moral struggle is the beginning of the long journey that builds the type of character and steadfastness we need to traverse not only our life in the world but also the inner path to God-realization. At first this may seem like too long and arduous a journey, but it is suggested in Adventure of Faith that, “Nobody should lose heart … for the inner path is a retracing, in reverse, of the soul’s long descent from her original home, which took place over an unimaginable span of time.”4
Because we are human, we can’t arrive there in one giant step. The journey begins with the understanding that we are flawed. But the good news is that while we are flawed, we have the pathway home within us. We do perform many negative actions, but we also have the capacity to overcome our weaknesses. Our soul has “come from high spiritual regions, from ultimate reality, and has the capacity to rise again to those heights and regain its lost freedom.”5 We have the capacity to struggle with ourselves, and we are capable of making the sacrifices that are needed in order to secure the inner victory we seek.
The Gospel of Jesus states:
Difficult through it may be, the struggle for human purity is only a means to contacting the inner Music, and it is this Music which ultimately brings perfection to a human being.
The best and most effective approach, therefore, in the quest for human perfection is to seek divine perfection through meditation on the Word of God. Then, all the good human qualities rise to the surface, like cream on milk.6
So it is a two-pronged approach: The goal of becoming a good human being is supported by our commitment to the struggle against our own weaknesses, and the struggle against our own weaknesses is automatically made ‘doable’ through our meditation and the path we are on.
The Gospel of Jesus continues:
In most people however, a sense of human identity, an aspect of the mind, has taken over the position of the self.7
Initially, we don’t realize that we – with our sense of identity – are simply an illusion. In this unbalanced form, “human identity becomes the ever- present human ego, asserting itself as selfishness and I-ness in every aspect of life…. Take take away the illusory sense of self from these [selfishness and I-ness] and they become their balanced counterparts – unattachment, contentment, chastity and forbearance.8
This is the human journey. To struggle against our own weaknesses is a step towards attaining the ultimate goal that we seek. And in this struggle a little humility helps us. Why do the saints put so much emphasis on the need to balance and rid oneself of the ego and acquire the trait of humility?
One thought is that we become humble when it becomes clear that in this struggle our individual talents alone are inadequate to the task that we have taken on. Humility reminds us over and over that we are not the centre of the universe, but that our lives serve a greater goal. In Spiritual Letters, Maharaj Sawan Singh is told by his master to keep the following words uppermost in his mind: “I am nothing. I am nothing. I am nothing.”9
Maharaj Charan Singh says:
The Dera … is built on seva and love and devotion and humility and meditation. And we have to build our whole life on these principles.”10
The ravages of the ego on humanity are legendary throughout time, and are in contradiction to the principles that we are trying to build our life upon. Ego blinds us and makes us believe that we are better, or worse, than we are – and better or worse than those around us. Ego even tells us that the path we are on is better than any one else’s. In buying into these beliefs we have lost the sense of humility that is necessary to walk the road to God-realization.
In The Gospel of Jesus, it is written:
Without some degree of spiritual insight the natural human sense of self becomes a massively enlarged ego…. Conversely, a true appreciation of human identity and one’s relationship to all else in the Lord’s creation lead to humility … a truly humble person will automatically be kind, generous, patient and self-controlled.11
No outer conflict will ever be as important as this struggle against our own inner deficiencies. Our struggle against selfishness, bigotry and insecurity gives meaning and shape to our lives. Contending with our weaknesses continually challenges us to be aware of the choices that we make. The ultimate purpose is not to reach a final destination at all costs, but to get better at waging the battle within our selves. Remember that the finest gold is made from the hottest fire. Similarly, each challenge we meet on our journey is an opportunity to experience the grace of the Master and bolster our courage to continue on the road. When we take each heartache, each moment of helplessness, each doubt and fear, and answer it with courage – no matter how unworthy we feel – we are walking towards him and our true goal in life. Soon we may realize that we are not angry so often, we are more honest, we are softer towards those we haven’t felt empathy for, and so on. These are all signs of progress.
Engaging in the struggle for building our character is the most important adjunct to our meditation on the path. Our character becomes the set of habits and responses that are engraved upon our inner mind during the process of our transformation. We are shaped by the million small acts of self-control, of sharing kindnesses, of considerate care that eventually and slowly engrave themselves upon our inner mind and create the tendency towards right action.
Eventually, we realize almost in horror that to continue to make selfish, cruel choices is actually keeping us from our true self. We then can understand the rationale, role and necessity of the four vows on the path in shaping us into individuals who behave with habitual self-discipline and caring.
The things that lead us astray are all short term, but they have long-term consequences. The things that form our character in becoming a good human being endure forever; they form the interior of our existence and nourish our soul. We become hardier in our ability to be obedient to a loftier goal, rather than giving in to the immediate reward of a short-term goal.
Maharaj Charan Singh says in Die to Live:
If we don’t have good moral character outside, we can never make progress within at all…. If you’re weak outside, you’ll be more miserable and weak within; you’ll never be able to make much progress.12
And we can’t do this on our own. Compassion, reason and individual will are not strong enough to consistently defeat our selfishness, pride, greed and self-deception. We need assistance from somewhere; we have to draw on something larger than ourself. We need the Master, who chisels our character and curbs the impetuosity of our spirit; we need meditation, and we need each other in satsang. There are times when we can draw from the cultural values of Sant Mat to re-educate our heart in the right direction. We do best when we wage our struggle in conjunction with others waging theirs. Hazur speaks about the purpose of satsang:
We are able to build humility and meekness in us … and we can be a source of strength to each other and help each other rise above our weaknesses. That is the purpose of satsang.13
At the very least we are a community of souls engaging in the same journey. He continues:
And the people who attend to meditation – good, noble satsangis – even they need that atmosphere, just to retain that humility within themselves, just to escape from unnecessary ego.14
But, actually, we are not saved by our singular struggle against ourselves – we are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness is too large. We think ‘we have it’ and then something comes to knock us off our course – failure, illness, death, loss of employment or a twist of fate. These times are gifts from him that remind us of the humility we need in order to move forward.
And the moments that humble us remind us of his grace. Grace may come in the most unexpected ways: a look of compassion from a friend, assistance from a stranger, a road sign that says, ‘hang in there’. And suddenly our course is set right again. We are reminded that he is the doer.
During our moments of misery, challenge and vulnerability we are open and sensitive to the fact that grace is always there, present and with us on this journey. Master describes this as a quieting of the self that takes place when we can experience his presence, and this can only be had when we quiet the sound of our own ego. The problem with our minds is that we tend to feel that we can earn grace, but he is the one who is always giving us the gift of grace. It is important to renounce the idea that we can earn it.
It is in stillness that we can gain the equipoise to continue in the struggle with our own weaknesses and with the immensity of the journey that we are on. Paul Tillich says:
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life…. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear … when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness…. In that moment, grace conquers sin.15
It [grace] is not in our hands to get it. All we can do is be sincere and faithful to our meditation, and then leave everything to the Lord’s mercy.16
We aren’t at the level to be able to see the ‘private stock’ of reasons for the things that come to us in our life, and we remain unable to comprehend the depths of our own minds. But we come to see that humility, courage and grace all play great roles in our journey.
The good news is that it is OK to be flawed. It is our humanness – our having weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and recognizing them – that helps us have empathy for others. Accepting our own weaknesses, we become more able to open our hearts and our arms and to give care and love to others.
The beauty of engaging in the struggle to become a good human being is that we become more graceful as time goes by. We might be pulled off course here and there, but we can approach each challenge with renewed commitment to our greater goal. Each weakness becomes an opportunity to wage a campaign that gives further and deeper meaning to our life and makes us a better person. We can repeatedly commit ourselves to a nobler way of being, and every time we repent and seek forgiveness there is dignity in the failing. Hazur says:
One who runs has a chance of falling, but he only falls to get up and run again. Pitfalls here and there do pull us back, but as long as we try to overcome those weaknesses, we again get up and again go ahead.17
We should take all these failures as our pillars of strength, provided we get up and walk again. If we don’t get up again, that is different. We are full of weaknesses, so pitfalls are there. But we should always be steady on the path. Our destination should always be before us, and we should try to get up again, and again walk. Ultimately we succeed.18
Each struggle we go through leaves an impression that makes us more substantial and deep as humans. This alchemy transforms us into self-realized and God-realized human beings, and it brings us joy. It is the joy that comes from knowing and remembering what truth we serve.
Ultimately, those who successfully struggle against their own weaknesses may not become rich and famous, but they will become spiritually mature. Spiritual maturity is not based upon talent, beauty or wealth. It isn’t earned by being better than other people, but by being better than we ourselves used to be. It is earned by the constant struggle to become a better human being by facing all that comes before us. Spiritual maturity is not glitzy. The spiritually mature person no longer relies on reactions from others to determine what is right, but on that inner yardstick that only asks, Will this take me closer to Him?
It has been said that this path calls for the bravery of a warrior. Even to meditate two and one half hours daily demands not only determination but also the renunciation of many things that other people consider important. We get there by saying a multitude of no’s for the sake of a few yes’s. We get there through the thousand choices that we make in favour of our ultimate goal. We get there on the pathway of grace that he is constantly putting before us. We get there because we have been pulled to something that is far larger than we are and he has made us willing players in this plan.
We get there by the day-to-day decisions that we make to engage in the repetition of simran, and in our meditation that will clear the way and dissipate our little selves for the sake of our true self. The guiding spirit for this journey is the Master. It is he who pulls us forward. Tulsi Sahib says:
Listen, thou art constantly being called from the Most High.
There ever beckons thee the voice of thy Beloved.
It is not meeting with the Beloved that is arduous;
What is difficult, O Taqi, is that it is hard to behold Him.
Without the grace of some realized Guide, says Tulsi,
The path of salvation is distant, beyond thy reach.19
When we are touched by his grace and allow ourselves to enter its field without fear, we see that we are all part of a whole, that we are elements of universal harmony, that everything – our inner and our outer landscape – is playing together in and for God. Our meditation and being a good human being are the essential components of this journey; they are worthwhile and bring the goal within our reach – our soul “retracing” back to its original home. You see he already has us in his arms. When we were initiated, he made us the promise that we will succeed. He will take us home. He only asks that we do our part.
- Thomas Merton, Essential Writings, p.87
- Yoga and the Bible, p.2
- John Stuart Mill, as quoted in The Road to Character, p.282
- Shradda Liertz, Adventure of Faith, p.251
- Bulleh Shah, p.34
- John Davidson, The Gospel of Jesus, p.863
- The Gospel of Jesus, p.865
- The Gospel of Jesus, p.865
- Baba Jaimal Singh, Spiritual Letters, p.106
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III, #139
- The Gospel of Jesus, pp.866–67
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Die to Live, p.57
- Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III, #165
- Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III, #171
- Paul Tillich, The Essential Tillich, p.131
- Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III, #477
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, #578
- Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, #538
- Tulsi Sahib, p.77