The three evil delusions of mankind; Nationalism, Racism and Religion which separate and divide the human race into conflicting segments. The three jewels of human life; Peace, Freedom and Happiness.
~ Sri Gurudev Mahendranath, The Exegetikos
A very close friend of mine asked me what may be the most pointed questions I’ve ever had directed at me about the purpose, even the usefulness, of spiritual practice. These are not easy questions to answer. I am open to sharing with people who are genuinely and sincerely interested (as I know he is), but I do not wish to come off as some sort of higher authority; I will not pretend that I know more than I do or have experienced more than I have, and I hope that my tone does not make it seem otherwise. But his questions were so direct that I couldn’t help but at least try to give the most thorough answers I could. And, of course, as soon as we had both parted for the night, I thought back on what I had said and how I had said it and started to fill in gaps in my head, clarifying and making more succinct. It seemed a perfect opportunity to do some writing aside from the book I’ve mostly been working on lately and, hopefully, it can be of help to somebody else.
The three questions he asked me, paraphrased, are:
- How can we be at all free within a system seemingly devised to keep us subjugated or else divest our humanity to do what it takes the climb the ladder of power?
- What have you gained from spiritual practice?
- How do you apply these things to the world?
Again, as you can see, these questions are direct and difficult. I will therefore take not less than three article posts here to give my best answers. They may not be to everybody’s liking, and I’m sure that they will be very incomplete, but at least here is what I have learned.
“Freedom isn’t free” was used during the George W. Bush administration here in the USA as a tagline for encouraging military action in the Middle East. Its questionable political motives aside, the phrase is broadly true. Freedom of any sort almost always requires the sacrifice of freedom of another sort; this is true of everybody, because a single lifetime is finite as are available resources.
Mokśa, liberation, is the ultimate freedom. No sacrifice is needed once this stage is reached, but for most of us that will be a long time in coming. Until then, we will have to give much up in the pursuit thereof. That should come as no surprise to anyone. As a magician friend likes to put it, “you wouldn’t expect to master a musical instrument by practicing ten minutes a day,” but that is exactly how many people approach magic, meditation, and other things spiritual expect. Some of them even get some noticeable results doing so because even five minutes of consistent practice a day is better than nothing, but even that is too little for mastery. And if a life of the soul is our actual aim, we can accept no less than a road to mastery.
In practical terms, that all means simplicity. In our society, almost nobody is able to live like a sadhu, nearly naked and wandering with only one or two possessions, because our society will not take care of such a person. In some other parts of the world, such as India, their value as living spiritual centers is recognized, but we cannot change an entire society’s values overnight so other ways must be found. Living inexpensively so that our spiritual lives may take center stage is a good start. Those of us without children may organize our lives so that we don’t need to work full time and may therefore spend more time studying and practicing. We may have to reduce time spent on hobbies. But we may also need to make hard decisions about our social lives. I do not mean to say that friends and family are necessarily obstacles, but often our obligations to social conventions hold us back and time spent in small talk is much as wasteful as time spent in front of a television.
On the level of politics, or of society, this also applies. We cannot help but to participate to some degree in a social and economic system which is to some degree corrupting. I say corrupting rather than corrupt because that is the more important point. The poet Edward Abbey had it that, “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.” This is true above a certain threshold of power, but it is also true below a certain threshold. That is to say, the want of power—of a sort we could call autonomy or self-determination—dehumanizes just as much as too much power, but in a very different way. When we feel weak, when we feel trapped, when we feel oppressed, we tend to revert to animal instincts out of a sense of survival. When we feel powerful, greater than the herd, we likewise revert to such instincts out of a genetic desire to maintain and grow that power. Whether racism, sexism, economic oppression, or—as counter-intuitive as it may seem—power itself, our minds are easily overcome by the portion of the systems we inhabit. This is always either a case of false self-identification or a symptom of it; we say “I am rich” or “I am poor” and we behave accordingly. The “victims” and the “perpetrators” are both enslaved to their own faulty identifications.
Now, it is common enough to see through some of these lies. Unfortunately, for every one we “see through”, we generally find our way to an opposite but equally problematic belief: ex-conservatives become arch-liberals, ex-occultists become “born-again” Christians, disillusioned Christians become militant atheists—we could continue all of this indefinitely. The point is this: it is an ongoing process, and we must not feel pride for any small progress made. For fear of seeming to lecture, I see this all the time. A person realizes that Political Candidate X is full of crap and assumes that Political Candidate Y must therefore hold the answers and then looks down on friends and family who refuse to see the light. Don’t pretend you haven’t done it; I have. But when you notice yourself doing it, realize the error. Never let yourself utter the word “sheeple” about your fellow men and women because we all have blind spots.
Freedom, genuine freedom, comes through effort and sacrifice. Absolutely nothing can be done to circumvent this. But, if you want the real truth, freedom comes from grace alone. Effort and sacrifice prepare us for grace, invite the activity of grace into our bodies, minds, and souls. Neither part of the equation is disposable, for grace is itself the cause of work and not the other way round.
Read Ernst Jünger’s The Forest Passage and look deeply into its message and you will see that freedom in this world is not a state but a process; Sri Gurudev Mahendranath further teaches that peace, freedom, and happiness do not equal liberation but are mutually interlocking techniques for achieving it. The systems of governance and economy which we create as human beings have their place; at their best, they help to stave off certain material problems to create space and supply resources for the subtler pursuits of art, science, and spirituality, but they easily become vectors for oppression no matter how well-intentioned. Even the “small government” so beloved of modern American conservatives is really just code for “government that does what we want and doesn’t do what we don’t want.” In other words: protecting our own interests while repressing those of those who disagree with us. Neither Right nor Left care overmuch for peace, freedom, and happiness because none of those three engines of liberation pays very well.
So the secret to freedom—today as ever—is just ora et labora, not a mere motto but a dictum, an order: Pray and Work! Do both. Make what sacrifices are necessary that both may blossom, releasing the subtle fragrances of peace, freedom, and happiness, because whatever you set aside to tend this garden is merely manure anyway and, in decaying in the absence of attention, will provide ample nutriment for the ultimate bloom of your own soul.