And you would do right to ask this question. But as someone wise once put it, "If you don't know where you're going, anywhere will get you there."
Or to quote the old Hermetic doctrine: "As above, so below."
We can learn much from the lives of those who have gone before us on the spiritual path and achieved soul liberation.
In exploring this subject, please permit me a certain randomness befitting of reflections that are necessarily intuitive or, at worst, speculative.
I've mentioned this before, but I've always found it curious that both Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. considered themselves a failure just about the time each was assassinated. (Though Rev. King seemed to have had a deep spiritual experience the afternoon of his last speech (before his assassination), in general he was disheartened about his life's work.)
Paramhansa Yogananda told Swami Kriyananda in answer to Swamiji's question to his guru, "When will I find God?" that "You will find God in this lifetime but death will be your final sacrifice."
Success in any endeavor, whether material, scientific, inventive, artistic, or spiritual, requires effort and self-sacrifice. (Never mind those born with the proverbial "silver spoon." Such cases have nothing practical to offer us by way of example.) For "the pearl of great price" is not to be purchased cheaply.
Christianity may have had a corner on the market of institutional organization and succession, but India has cornered the "market" on building a "database" of the unfoldment of the soul's inner life.
The yogic traditions have evolved a veritable science which details changes in consciousness and their manifestations as the soul progresses towards "moksha" (freedom).
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is among the most renown and most clinical of such chronicles but by no means the only one. Countless stories from the lives of great saints form a body of knowledge illustrating the stages of awakening.
The Bhagavad Gita depicts the "Everyman devotee" as losing heart early on in the spiritual journey, especially when encountering the army of habits, attitudes, and past actions which stand between him and "heaven." The beloved scripture of the Gita assures us that no spiritual effort is ever lost and should one fail to achieve freedom in one life, the next life will afford the opportunity to continue the journey.
Among the key ingredients of the climb up "Mount Carmel" (or, if you prefer, Mt. Meru) is faith and courage. Also essential is devotion. The fact that the devotee's devotion, faith, and/or courage fails him or her with cyclical frequency is the story of the soul: the "Greatest Story on Earth." The need for a guide to take us up the mountain of karma is a prerequisite that we see in the lives of those who conquered the peak of liberation.
Yoga describes this upward journey through the unfoldment of certain soul qualities and through their outward manifestation in certain gifts or powers. This article doesn't intend to explore these but a simplified description for illustration purposes might be useful.
We must first be convinced that false, deceptive or hurtful attitudes and actions must be released. We must learn the importance of truth-telling, contentment, non-violence, moderation and the like.
This leads us to being centered within our selves: self-contained, as it were. It's like preparing to climb Mt. Everest: we must decide to go and to let go of all other activities; we must gather our supplies and our strength for the climb. Our commitment must be unshakeable and we must have training for the rigors ahead. Our intention must be one-pointed and courageously heart-felt and pure of any other motives and distractions.
Once the climb begins in earnest and as we ascend our mind's focus becomes narrow: narrow in the sense of what a climber experiences from one moment to the next; one hand-hold, one toe-hold, one ice axe arrest; one cable hold to the next. The world around us recedes as our mind focuses on the present moment with great intensity. Far below us in the plains lie the busy-ness of the world but here, on the steep slopes of ice, snow and wind, there is only our next step.
Death by cold, avalanche, starvation, or fall lurk around us every inch of the way. We increasingly rely upon our mountain guide for the way is narrow and steep.
The spiritual path, as most truthseekers experience it, is a battle that takes place back down on the plains, long before our arduous ascent up the mountain. The gathering of supplies and training has to do with releasing false and hurtful habits and adopting new and spiritually healthy ones.
Using the symbol of the cross, with its vertical and horizontal planes, these first stages deal mostly with the horizontal. Arms outstretched, we draw in and away from identification with and attachment to the world of the senses and the world of desires and fears which are centered around the ego and body.
But the climb up the mountain deals with the vertical plane of the cross. The preparations for and training for the ascent is crucial. Unprepared we might never make it. Hence, most of us are dealing with the horizontal: our relationship with the world around us.
Suffice to say, how often on the horizontal plane does our courage and faith fail us, even if momentarily. Preparing for the vertical ascent is itself a great victory (and a necessary one). The failures, discouragements, and doubts are, in themselves, mini-versions of the dark night of the soul (even if nowhere near the "last temptation").
Do you recall the temptation of Christ in the New Testament? Thus had Jesus conquered and cauterized all human attachments and, in the desert wilderness of inner silence was poised or at least "fit" to ascend to the Father, Satan ("Maya" or the Conscious Delusive Force) appears to test him. The horizontal plane had been withdrawn inward and only the vertical remained.
Satan then tempts Jesus to use his dominion over all nature (the power indicative of conquering the horizontal plane of earthly attachments) to bring him food (after his 40-day fast); to exercise earthly and material powers (e.g. as a conqueror or emperor).
This is the last test: the test of ego and the test of power over all creation. Buddha faced the same test under the bodhi tree: Maya also appeared to him to test him. Buddha, too, responded exactly as Jesus did: "Mara (Maya), Mara, I have conquered thee (or, "Get thee behind me Satan").
In the science of yoga, the negative pole of the sixth chakra is the seat of ego-consciousness in the body. It is located at the medulla oblongata at the base of the brain (seat of our lower brain functions, the so-called "reptile" or "fight or flight" functions).
In the rising power of Kundalini ("the entrenched vitality of our mortal delusion" - Swami Kriyananda, "Art and Science of Raja Yoga), it has one last test: to offer itself into the Divine Light. In the soul's journey, the ego slowly and in fits and starts intuits the goal of life as transcendence from both the horizontal plane of creation AND the vertical plane of separate existence.
As step by step, the ego invites the hidden and locked Kundalini power to uncoil, together they win victories on both the horizontal plane and the vertical plane. At first, as mentioned above, the horizontal plane is the primary focus. But at each step the soul force of divine grace is what vitalizes the ego's will and intention to victory.
As the horizontal "plains" far below in the lower psychic centers of the chakras fall away, the soul increasingly focuses on ascending the vertical plane. Here too there are many knots to be untied in the invisible world of consciousness. Far more subtle and spiritually dangerous are the distractions and temptations which lie in the upper centers (chakras).
"Pride goeth before the fall." While pride associated with worldly wealth, power or pleasures is continually under assault from other egos and the forces of duality in the world, spiritual power emanates from within and cannot so easily be taken from us. India's spiritual wealth is filled with stories of the temptations of pride from spiritual power.
But when the ego is stripped and made clean of all attributes, self-definitions and attachments, what remains is pure consciousness and consciousness is its own vitalizing reward. Many saints remain in an I-Thou relationship with God for even lifetimes.
In the life of Paramhansa Ramakrishna, it was his guru, Totapuri, who with great force broke the spell of Ramakrishna's love affair with Goddess Kali so that Ramakrishna could enter cosmic consciousness in the state of samadhi.
As the great master, Moses, led his "people" to the Promised Land but could not, himself, enter into it, so too the ego can lead the "people" of its own self-definitions but must die before the Promised Land can be entered.
So, too, the great warrior, Bhishma, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra (in the epic of the Mahabharata) had the boon to die only when he willingly surrendered. For he also symbolized the ego.
The stories from the lives of saints continue in this vein to state that the final sacrifice the soul is asked to make is to surrender its separate identity (the ego) into the great Light of God.
Paramhansa Yogananda's most advanced disciple, whom he named Rajarsi Janakananda, faced the darkness before entering final liberation. After years of spiritual consolations afforded him by visions and visitations by his guru and great saints and many other deep inner experiences, there, at last, came a time when only darkness appeared within.
He had to face this darkness. The darkness that faces the soul is the seemingly real possibility of extinction, of complete annihilation of one's existence. With no guiding, welcoming light, nor the smiling countenance of his guru, neither reason nor logic, nor books on the subject could assure him that the darkness was not real; at this moment, one's "rod and staff" are solely faith and courage.
We can write or talk about this all day but, just as when most humans face the very real possibility of physical death, there's no play acting left, so too the soul must confront its own extinction in order to pass the last test of its life.
St. Anthony of the Desert faced this after decades of prayer and solitude in the Egyptian desert. When the tomb which was his home began to crack and crumble, he cried out to his guru, Jesus.
After Anthony had passed this final test, Jesus appeared to him. Anthony asked Jesus, "Where have you been all these years?" Jesus smiled reassuringly, "Anthony, I have always been with you!" But we, like Anthony, are not permitted to know that until we have passed the final test of darkness. And why is this? Because only in complete oneness is our realization safe from doubts.
We have no choice in life but to someday face the death of our human body. But we can postpone forever facing the dark night of the soul. "I will wait," says God. But our destiny is to conquer Maya and so shall we conquer, for time itself is but an illusion. But so long as we measure time, why wait?
When the great Buddha encountered the three-fold sufferings of human life (illness, old age and death), he vowed to conquer them. And so must we. When our soul tires of repeated rounds of rebirth on the wheel of samsara, it too will cry out to Divine Mother for help. Why wait?
The little darknesses of our daily or weekly crises of faith and courage are "baby steps" which can prepare us for the big step. Whether it be lifetimes or this life, let us remain "awake and ready" for we can never know the hour or the place, for "He comes like a thief in the night!"
The realm of Infinity is beyond light or dark. It is the realm of eternal bliss which is God. When we conquer Mara, we will view our past lives of joy and sorrow as but a great novel with a victorious ending!
Joy to you,