The Essence of the Spiritual Life
Sri Swami Atmaswarupananda
Early Morning Meditation Talk given in the Sacred Samadhi Hall of Gurudev Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, Sivananda Ashram, Rishikesh
Scriptures tell us that in the beginning, One alone was; and then that One said, “Let there be many.” But even then, One alone was; and even now, One alone is. What is the nature of that One alone? Scriptures tell us that it is unknowable, unthinkable, but to try to help us, they say, “It is That which was the same in the beginning, is the same now and will ever be the same.” And they say that it is of the nature of existence, consciousness, bliss; or if you want a simple description, it is “I”.
That “I” is everywhere, manifesting Itself as everything. But in the human being there is a peculiarity. That “I” manifests as self-awareness. Unfortunately that self-awareness is not an awareness of the grandeur, the unknowableness of the “I”, but rather, that self-awareness identifies with a body and mind. This we call ego. It means we feel separate.
The word hell comes from an old English word meaning to be walled off from. So hell means to be separate. On the other hand, the word heaven comes from the same root as the word harmony. So hell means separation and heaven means harmony. Thus, when the principle of self-awareness in the human being identifies with the body, it feels separate, and that is hell. When it identifies with the true “I”–I am That–it is in harmony, it is in heaven.
The whole purpose of the spiritual life is to convert this self-awareness in the human being from a mistaken awareness that “I am the body” to a true awareness that “I am That.” How is this done? It is not just enough to discover this truth intellectually, nor even to feel this truth, we must actually become this truth. That means we can no longer assert the separate “I”. The separate “I” has to surrender to the true “I”; it has to take refuge in the true “I”; it has to follow the true “I”. There is nothing else to the spiritual life, in the final analysis, except this.
Following the ego keeps us in hell and compounds the hell. When we repent, which means to turn around and go in the other direction, we surrender our individuality, our separateness, and exchange it for harmony with the Whole. This is spiritual life. And if our spiritual life doesn’t contain this element of surrender, if it doesn’t contain this movement from separation to harmony, it perhaps explains why we don’t feel that we’re making the progress we had hoped for.
Therefore, the essence of the spiritual life is moving from being separate to being in harmony. The ego doesn’t usually want to do it until it has suffered so much that it sees that there is no other way. Thus, often suffering can be a great blessing. But we needn’t suffer if we have the humility to see that the essence of the spiritual life is in surrendering our individuality and taking refuge in God, that it is in surrendering our sense of separation, so that we are in harmony.