"Self-effort is the greatest impediment to realization.” The old swami’s words felt like a kick in the stomach. We were having lunch together, discussing sadhana and the role of self-effort on the spiritual path. When he said this, immediately, I was ready to argue.
I had heard this very swami give talks about the importance of sustained practice, and besides, I was personally insulted. I had worked very hard for many years on the spiritual path and had wagered a great deal on the power of my effort.
Effort was the one thing I could do. I could perform seva, I could learn to meditate, and I could memorize the teachings. Effort was something I could sink my teeth into. Of course, I had some idea that "divine grace" was also important, but in my understanding, that grace would only flow when I was ready to step out and act. In my understanding, that grace was something I earned through the sweat of my brow.
My conversation with the swami became the beginning of a new stage of my spiritual journey. The swami somewhat impatiently explained to me that our divinity was the most natural thing about us and that all we need to do was to “let go and be That.” After a valiant and arrogant attempt to make this great teacher see my point of view, I finally gave up and tried to practice what he was suggesting. His assignment for me was to “drop all the intellectual stuff and just walk in the garden. Look at the trees, listen to the birds.” That was it.
His simple assignment proved harder than it sounds. At the time, I was engaged in serious practice: writing, studying, practicing self-inquiry, meditating, chanting, and offering many hours of service to the ashram. Following Swamiji’s suggestion, I put my journal and my books away and began my practice of walking in the gardens.
I did the practice in the morning, after lunch, and in the evening when the sun was setting. I tried to follow the instruction of ‘dropping all the intellectual stuff,’ resisting the urge to mentally figure out the assignment. As much as I could, I just walked, looked, and listened.
I didn't have a sudden breakthrough, it was more like a terminal bruising. It took me years to "get" what Swamiji was trying to gift me.
Gradually, a new understanding of sadhana, or spiritual practice, began to dawn on me: the harder I worked, the further away I was. In the tantric tradition of Trika Shaivism, the individual soul is said to have three coverings, or “stains.” They are karmamala, the sense that we are bound by our actions; mayiamala, the sense that we are separate from everyone and everything; and anavamala, the most basic sense that we are incomplete, that we are small, unworthy, and not powerful.
The soul that is encased in theses coverings is totally pure. It is beyond our actions, one with everything, and totally powerful. Again and again the teachings tell us that at the level of that imperishable soul, we are, in fact, God. The only things that limit our experience of this truth are these coverings. Sadhana then, is the process of breaking through these coverings and bringing our base awareness deeper and deeper into the radiant self inside them.
When I came to the path I was an American college student with many deeply embedded habits and destructive tendencies—there was much work to do. In the beginning, the practices, my self-effort, and divine grace were essential to wear away these coverings so that I could begin to glimpse the truth inside myself.
Working in this way freed me to a certain point, and then it began to bind me all over again. The chains were sublime: chanting, meditation, scriptural study, serving my guru—but they were chains nonetheless. The problem wasn’t so much my hard work but rather the wrong understanding behind the work I was doing. The whole time I was practicing from the assumption that I am not already God. I was working as a bound soul trying to become God. My work was an affirmation of my limitation—the harder I worked, the more vehemently I was insisting that I was not God. My self-effort was actually reinforcing anava, mayia and karmamala.
The swami recognized my dilemma and very compassionately steered me in another direction. Walking in the garden, I gradually relaxed to the point where I could let go and be with the trees. I could smell the fragrances of the garden and simply listen to the birds. As I listened from this open state, I heard the birds telling me what the swami could not: That I was Shiva and that my most intrinsic nature was already “there.” My deepest self was already realized and that all I needed to do was to relax into that state of being. Right here, right now, I am there.
All those years I was approaching sadhana as “little old me” slowly climbing the immense mountain of liberation. In the garden I began to experience myself as the mountain which included everything, even “little old me” down there with his ropes and climbing gear. The swami wasn’t telling me to give up practice, but rather to re-frame my understanding of it. Gradually, I began my practices again, with the affirmation that I am That. Now, the practices help me relax into my true and divine nature.
© 2013 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies