A word in Sanskrit that I use often in my writing and teaching is sadhana.
This word has several definitions, as is common in Sanskrit vernacular, depending on time, place, and context. However the definition I share more frequently is this:
sadhana = "the way of attainment".
The question then is -- well, what are we trying or attempting to "attain"?
In this essay I will speak on this topic and elaborate on the word, sadhana, as I feel that this word is the most accurate and precise symbol of what we mean by spiritual practice.
Allow us to examine this.
I'll start with the inquiry for your contemplation: what is it that we are trying to do in spiritual practice? Do we know? Do we have an idea of what the goal might be, through our endeavors? This is very important. Without knowing the destination, even if we have the best map, we are not sure where to go. We might take many roads, exploring, dabbling, discovering, but never reaching a clear destination. In the traditions of Yoga and Tantra, from which the word sadhana emerges, there is an emphasis placed on the aspirant understanding the goal of their efforts. In some cases, this is more important than the method implied. You can think of it like a recipe. If you know you want to bake a cake (the cake being the final destination, or more accurately, the sweet satisfaction of savoring the deliciousness of "cake"), then you will be able to work backwards from here and figure out what you need to make it happen. You will need the raw ingredients, definitely, you will need an instrument through which the baking can take place, and you will need to have steps of a recipe to follow. Without any of these necessary components, you will not complete your task. You will not have attained "cake".
So, what "cake" are you trying to bake? Again, this is very important. Essentially, this defines the spiritual path.
In a day and age where spiritual practice is often related to healing trauma, personal growth, and such like, it is possible that we end up a little misguided in our efforts. What do I mean by this? Well, for one, having access to sacred technology that has the power to transform human consciousness can lead to amassing a lot of personal power. The methods of Yoga allow one to purify their bodymind in such a way that they can develop very strong psychic abilities. Without a necessary and balancing tempering of the ego-mind, a person can end up very strong in their energy and willpower, which can be a good thing, but lack the necessary inner refinement that allows this power to be wielded for selfless reasons. It is my opinion that spiritual practice is meant to bring us closer to a sense of self-less-ness, whereby we use the energy we gain from our efforts to serve the world and not merely our own self-interest. So this is where I stand and from where I am writing on the topic of "spiritual practice".
What did I mean when I said "misguided in our efforts"? To clarify this, I would say that there are people who come to spiritual practice from a place of being wounded and needing to heal. This is okay and a natural sequence of events. Basically, we realize that when we work on ourselves, we can sort out problems that occur in our life. We develop a mind that is at ease or at peace, and from this place of inner stability, we can make better choices. These better choices optimize our environment for ideal outcomes. These ideal outcomes lead to a life that is ultimately more fulfilling. Following this train of thought, it is possible that by working on ourselves and reaching a state of supreme inner alignment we can realize the goal of life....
Which is what? Back to the beginning. What is the point? What are we trying to "attain" through our sadhana, or spiritual practice?
One must know clearly and know inside of themselves what they are trying to do. This inner knowing is what brings clarity of intention and allows one to set out on their true path. Now, each person might have a different path, surely, variable based on our karmic imprints and conditioning... but the final result must be the same, no? The "result" is spoken of in numerous sacred texts and mystically alluded to in so many songs, art, and poetry across the ages. The "result" is seen and felt when observing the performances of the geniuses and creative humans of our time. A fully realized self -- the fully manifest, authentic and effortless expression of life through any one particular human being. When we see it, we know it, we feel it. The person observed, someone who brings great inspiration to many, becomes a sort of "window" to the Infinite, is it not so? There are so many forms this can take, but what is felt when we observe them is the same feeling. A feeling of inspiration, of hope, of ... faith? Maybe. Perhaps what happens in these moments, when we feel inspired by witnessing a person who is so aligned to the great creative force of life, is that this act of witnessing triggers a memory of what is possible. The question then becomes -- well, what is possible?
What is possible?
What IS the goal of human life? What is the goal of MY life? What am I here to do?
To ask these questions, sincerely, begins to open one into their own inner wonder. A process of self-discovery and self-realization unfolds. Who am I? What am I capable of? Do I want to live my life without ever knowing?
I believe that this is a natural and innate impulse inside all of us. It is the impulse of life -- the evolutionary impetus that has propelled humanity along since... well, probably since before we were even humans. A creative momentum from the beginning of time. Emerging through us, as us. Putting a subtle but felt pressure inside every heart, inspiring us to figure out how to do it better. I think this a sort of cosmic law, or a natural principle, embedded in all of life. Without this, we would never have ended up here. Without this spark of, we might call it "divine intelligence", being in every particle, the early moments of the Big Bang and creation of the Universe would have never cohered into a pattern that brought into existence oceans and waterfalls and blooming flowers and butterflies and humans. Interestingly, this idea that I am talking about of "divine intelligence" being in every particle is a fundamental principle of Tantra. In Tantric cosmology, it is stated quite plainly that a spark of the divine exists in every-thing. Hermetic law suggests something similar when it says "as above, so below". That the outer universe and all the cosmic principles that uphold reality and existing right here in our bodies, all the way down in a holographic way to the very atoms that make up our biology. Simply put, there is a pattern. And this pattern is intelligent. Please do confuse intelligence with intellect -- we are talking about something different here. These are more like laws of physics, yet even more subtle and fundamental.
We have this innate impulse driving us along, propelling us to figure out what we are here to do, to make tomorrow a little better than today, etc. And I believe that it is here, at this place of deep inner curiosity, that we start to tap on the door of true spirituality. While there are many spiritual traditions, and indeed every religion has a spiritual or mystical underpinning, the process for each individual is the same. We all have to take the journey -- no one will take it for us. And we need to figure out what we are trying to do, really.
In light of this, we now come to spiritual practice. We are getting clearer about the destination on the map. How vast is your imagination? Can you imagine a concept as massive as God? What happens when you try to turn your mind to that? Do you end up bogged down by learned concepts or things you read about in a book? Where are the limits of your mind? Do you truly believe that anything is possible, or is that pesky voice in your head constantly holding you back in your life?
Spiritual practice, or sadhana, "the way of attainment", becomes a symbolic endeavor. The effort we put into is related to the faith we have in where we are going. Interestingly, even someone with a lack of faith can begin to practice and develop faith. Faith is not something inherited or learned. I like to think of it as something is earned with time, patience, and courage. Because faith is deeper than belief. It emerges from within, and only you know it. You might not be able to explain it, but you can live it. You have faith because you start to see where you want to go, and you start to see the value of moving in that direction. Without this clarity, the mind is easily distracted. Countless temptations come up, and in the spiritual traditions these temptations are sometimes seen as demons. Even the word "devil", which etymologically means "to divide", alludes to this. The "devil" divides our mind and prevents us from being in absolute solidarity with our inner vision. Our energy ends up split and we might make some progress, but ... it is misguided.
We have many examples of humans who have "gone all the way". Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, prophets of many names and colors and cultures who have realized the Final Truth. These humans incarnated at times when life really needed a gentle push or a nudge to be reminded of where we are going. It is said that when dharma becomes off-set in the cosmos, an avatar is sent to Earth to help restore balance. The word dharma is another Sanskrit word that essentially means "righteous order". The word comes from the root dr (pronounced D-ruh) which means "to uplift or uphold". As in, dharma is the activity which uplifts or upholds the entirety of existence. To make that even clearer -- activities, thoughts, behaviors and things that we can "do" are in alignment with the Whole. This is dharma. And when humanity is tipping the scales in to chaos, the evolutionary intelligence in life awakens and pushes us back towards order. This is happening in us, and through us. If we look closely, it can be no other way.
So we have to pay attention to this. In our own lives. We watch for misalignment and seek to correct patterns that are no longer good for us. This is the spiritual practice. The "way of attainment" becomes clearer, then. We start to have a clearer sense of our true goal and purpose. It becomes less about us and more about the Whole. More about the environment. More about the Earth. More about virtue than vice. This is, of course, a process, and it doesn't happen in a few hasty steps, trainings, or workshops. But slowly slowly slowly, we start to get clearer with ourselves with the question -- "what am I really trying to do?" or "what is worth doing?" These are very big questions if we sit with them long enough.
Don't let the world creep in. Come into the inner silence of the heart, where wisdom and intelligence is pulsing so naturally and has been for an eternity. The blood in your veins was at one point in the oceans. Centuries from now, that same blood will be circulating the globe through the waterfalls, rivers and rains. What does that want?
In the silence of the heart, the answers we are looking for can be found. These answers surpass the questions of life. They bring meaning to what is essentially meaningless. From here, it is possible to begin imbuing the sacred onto life. Not before. Sacredness means nothing to someone who has not peeled back the layers. In this person, reverence and devotion are merely for show. True reverence, true devotion, true spirituality... these things can only come out of a deep inner search, beyond the stories of right and wrong, good and bad, this and that.
Know what cake you're trying to bake. Then work backwards. Know what tools you need to get the job done. If you don't know but are searching, it is the sincerity in your heart that will attract to you what the need. The Universe is conspiring in your favor. All you've got to do is tune in, listen, and have the courage to follow. There is an inner compass guiding you. Can you feel it?
"The way of attainment". Sadhana. Where do you want to go?