Keeping Our Eyes on the Ball

by William Page

Sri Ramakrishna declared that the purpose of human life is to realize God.[1] That is a bold undertaking.  Some will say it’s hubristic.  What makes us think we’re so great that we can reach up to heaven, grab God by the hem of his robe, and drag him down to make him our own?  The very notion reeks of hubris.  So the devotee has to be humble.  He has to say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should dwell under my roof!”  The Lord is all compassion, and he loves humility.  He says, “If you were worthy, what would be the point?”  Through his grace he stoops from heaven and lends a hand to lift us up.

Cultivate the Indwelling Presence

Many religions point to the idea that God has planted his seed within us and longs for it to germinate.  The Christians have the idea of the indwelling Christ.  Hinduism has the idea of the Antaryamin, the Indweller.  The Mahayana Buddhists have the idea of the tathagatagarbha, the Buddha-nature.  The Kabbalists have the idea of holy sparks that fell to earth, got trapped in matter, and have to be redeemed.  The Rig Veda says, “All beings form a fourth of him.”[2] Swami Vivekananda says, “Each soul is potentially divine.”

These ideas all have conceptual differences, but they all point to one underlying theme: that divinity, while it suffuses the world outside us, also lies within us.  Even President Obama, who is no professional theologian, often speaks of the “spark of divinity” that lies latent within us all.   If it stays a spark, that doesn’t do anybody any good.  What we have to do, with God’s help, is to fan the spark into a flame, and from a flame into a fire that will give light to both ourselves and others.

Maintain the Balance

God-realization is the goal.  That is the central point of the Ramakrishna dispensation, and we need to keep it always in mind. But Swami Vivekananda adds a corollary, which constitutes the twofold ideal of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. “Atmano mokshartham jagad hitaya cha”:  “For the liberation of the Spirit and the welfare of the world.”  Why the welfare of the world?  Because the Spirit we seek to liberate is in the world as well as in ourselves.

In practice, “for the liberation of the Spirit” means working for our own individual spiritual development.  We strive to strengthen, deepen, and expand our inner lives through devotional activities: worship, prayer, japa, meditation.  “For the welfare of the world” means working for the benefit of humankind. We try to serve our fellow human beings with selfless love, seeing them all as potential embodiments of God.

Working for the welfare of the world not only benefits others—it’s an important spiritual discipline that also benefits ourselves.  It helps to subdue the ego and prevent self-centeredness.  I’m told that the swamis and brahmacharis sometimes jokingly call the Ramakrishna Mission “the Ramakrishna Machine.”  Why a machine?  Because, like a machine, service to others grinds away at the sharp edges of our personalities.  It makes a necessity of forbearance, curbs the ego, and serves as a healthy corrective to self-centeredness.  As one swami once told me, “We have to swallow a lot.”

But when we try to follow this twofold path, we run into the problem of maintaining a balance.  If the balance is skewed, the ideal will get distorted.  Like King Janaka, we have to fence with two swords. Some of us get so caught up in working for the welfare of the world that we neglect the struggle to liberate the Spirit.  The jagat tail must not be allowed to wag the Atman dog: service of the world must not lead us to neglect our spiritual development.  If we forget our devotions, if we skip our prayers, if we scrimp on our japa and meditation, we are not only cheating God, we are letting down those great ones who gave their lives to establish the Ramakrishna movement.

Both Swami Brahmananda and Swami Shivananda were adamant that the balance must be maintained.  “If you only get involved in activities without practising meditation,” Swami Brahmananda warned, “ego and pride will crop up, and quarrels and dissensions will ensue, thus disturbing the equanimity of your mind. … Stick to your sadhana by all means.”[3] Swami Shivananda agreed:  “Please practise japam and meditation regularly, because that is the source of power.  Do not curtail time from meditation….Without practising japam and meditation, one cannot  work according to the ideal of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.”[4]

The Householder’s Burden

Those of us who are householders have many responsibilities, both family and professional, not to mention the need for recreation and relaxation.  If we’re not careful, our outer activities will squeeze out our inner lives.  So if we’re serious about realizing God, we have to be tough on ourselves.  We can’t win the game if we take our eyes off the ball.  Recently I learned that Deepak Chopra gets up at 4:00 a.m. and meditates for an hour and a half every morning;[5] the Dalai Lama gets up at 3:00 or 3:30 a.m. and puts in at least five and a half hours of prayer, meditation, and study every day.[6] The Dalai Lama puts in more time because he’s a monk. But both of these men are very busy.  If they can do it, so can we.

The Eastern religions place great emphasis on early-morning meditation.  Unfortunately, some of us are not “morning people.”  Some of us (I am mentioning no names!) feel severely imposed upon if we have to get up before 7:00.  And then sometimes the alarm clock doesn’t ring; or if it does, we quickly turn it off and roll over for a few more minutes of snore time, and when we wake up we’re surprised to find it’s two hours later.  And then some people (again no names) can’t even begin to function in the morning till they’ve had three cups of coffee.  Because of these and other reasons,  our morning meditation is often quick and perfunctory—maybe 15 or 20 minutes at best.

For such slothful slackers, God has provided a marvelous invention.  It’s called evening.  That’s when we usually have more time.  And if we can resist the temptation to turn on the TV or log onto the Internet or play with any of our other techno-toys, that’s the time for some serious prayer, japa, and meditation.  Morning meditation sanctifies the day; evening meditation sanctifies the night—and may even improve the quality of our dreams. If we’re lucky, the Indwelling Presence, activated by meditation, may take the opportunity to scour some of the the scum out of our subconscious while we sleep.

Adaptations in the timing of our devotional practices have to be made to suit the requirements of our minds and our different situations.  The important thing is to do the practice as often, as long, and as regularly as possible, and not neglect it.  Realizing God is a little like a sport—but a serious one.  We’ll never score a hole-in-one, we’ll never hit a homer, we’ll never make that winning touchdown, if we take our eyes off the ball.

 

 


[1] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, 273, 521.

[2] Rig Veda 10:90.

[3] Swami Chetanananda, A Guide to Spiritual Life, first edition, Vedanta Society of St.

Louis, 1988, 150.

[4] Swami Chetanananda, God Lived with Them, Vedanta Society of St. Louis, first edition,

1997, 159, quoting Swami Apurvananda, Mahapurush Shivananda, Udbodhan Office,

Calcutta, 1949, 9.

[5] http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1202/17/ta.01.html.

[6] His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, My Spiritual Autobiography, London, Rider,

2010, 35, 77.

 


 

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