To build a relationship with God we must understand what each meeting with God feels like or in other words, we need to understand what is a Spiritual Experience. The teacher, who taught me about synthesis, also spoke about ‘Spiritual Experience’ as follows ‘to have a spiritual experience is to have forgotten oneself for a moment.’ He used to say that ‘even an artist immersed in creating his art form is undergoing a spiritual experience.’! This would imply that doing a work that one loves can be a medium to the spiritual experience, especially because it provides the all important ‘detachment’. Everything concerned with the self is out of mind when one is immersed, totally absorbed, in the work one loves. This work could be anything, writing, painting, music and any other as long as there is total immersion in it.
In fact music and dance are also powerful forms of meditation. Devotional songs are often considered the best prayer. Guru Nanak is known to have realized his beloved (whom he knew as Ik Onkar which is Punjabi for Om) through music. Shiva represents the energy in dance. Devotional dance brings out the energy in the being, connecting it to the powers of the universe.
On the other hand when there is nothing on which to devote one’s energies; the self and all its concerns come rushing. When the brain is not engaged in some productive work, it spends its energies by being destructive. It is aptly said that an empty mind is the devils workshop. An empty mind does think upon meaningless matters just to keep itself occupied, because it was created to be occupied. It spends its energies in aggression, possession, obsession, addiction, which are the time pass of an unengaged mind.
So whenever we find ourselves engaged in destructive thinking, we should realize that we are trapped in the worldly realm. To move again into the spiritual realm the easiest way is to find the right work and forget the self in the work. And so one can plainly conclude that Spiritual Experience through any approach must be the same as the experience of being immersed in a work of one’s choice! Somebody said very aptly that ‘Work is Worship’
What is the role of prayer in the approach to God?
‘All our libraries and studies are mere emptiness compared with our closets.’ Mr. Spurgeon.
What we seek is a perpetual relationship with God and not merely a one time spiritual experience. Perpetual experience is built by adding in one brick after another where each brick is a spiritual experience.To build a relationship there has to be a daily communication.This daily communication is Prayer. For communication there has to be speaking and also necessarily a period of listening. Prayer is therefore the means to this two way communication with God. Prayer is a daily communication with the unseen energy that drives the world. But prayer has so many ways and aspects that it has to be understood more deeply to become a real door to the unseen and so I am devoting a whole chapter to it.
Gratitude and prayer for others
Though today I believe in the importance of prayer above all research or study, it has not been always so. There has been a period in my life in which I did not pray at all. My prayers before that stage had been entirely for the fulfillment of my wishes or removal of problems that obstructed their fulfillment. I began to feel over time that praying for the removal of personal problems was only reminding me that I am in a problem situation and that it sort of only magnified the problem. Praying was to me like rolling in the gutter called ‘my problem’ leaving me feeling worse after prayer. That made me abandon prayer altogether. I was happier just being absorbed in ‘daily works’. I didn’t realize then that what was hurting me was not prayer but the manner and the topic of my prayer. I had a thinking that God should be giving only what I perceive as good for me. I was too immature to realize then, that believing in God means accepting everything that he chooses for us, even when we perceive it as ‘bad’.
Of course when life adamantly takes its own direction without consulting our wishes or dreams, we are left with no other option but to give up the importance that we accord to “my thinking, my dreams, my aims and myself”! But when that really happens finally, the need to sulk over ‘unpleasant’ happenings is gone, after all now one is not living in some constant expectation from life. When there comes such an acceptance of situations and a sincere gratitude to God for his wise decisions (which are albeit beyond our understanding), everything changes!
Whole hearted acceptance, changes one’s attitude and thereby the reactions to the ‘bad situations’. And suddenly as things change for the better, one may realize with a shock that 'non acceptance of life situations’ was the only thing that had gone wrong”.
Therefore today I believe that prayer becomes most helpful in the approach to God, when it consists of ‘gratitude’ and ‘prayer for others’ rather than mere demands. Gratitude, because it helps us remember that most of the things that happened during the day were good. It helps to realize how we fret over the single unpleasant occurrence in a day and forget the seven pleasant ones! If we think clearly, then the count of blessings each day will definitely be much more than the count of what we consider as unpleasant. These counts each day will surely make us breathe easy and relax, knowing that the day wasn’t that bad after all!
Prayer for others helps us see that our sufferings are so insignificant compared to what others suffer. Looking back into time, I feel that in our childhood we are able to empathize with the suffering of others, but as we grow older, we learn to put to mute our sensitivity to the suffering of others; because suffering is everywhere and we feel we can’t help anyway. But today I feel that we can in fact help. Somebody once asked me ‘how can God allow such suffering, why doesn’t he help?’ I personally feel that God has given us free will and he can help the world only if it is our common will that he interfere. Our will for God’s intervention is put forth when we pray. While reading tragic news in the paper instead of trying to move away our attention, we have to allow our eyes to well up with tears and pause a moment to pray for peace for the concerned people or souls. We may not know what is right for an individual, but prayer for peace and strength can never be an inappropriate prayer. In our own trying circumstances also we must remember that there are countless who might be in similar circumstances, and take our situation as an opportunity from God to pray for all in similar circumstances by using our own intensity of need.
What is the right thing to ask for another? I used to wonder, 'how can I be sure that what I am praying for the other person is proper or not, after all only God knows what is right for him or her'. We may pray for somebody’s recovery from a life threatening disease and it may not happen. And we may also think that anyway everybody has to die one day or the other! Personally, I used to find unanswered prayers very discouraging and therefore avoided praying for sick people. But later, when prayers again became a part of my life, I began to realize that in cases where I had pushed God, asking him to go in accordance to my wishes; I had experienced a definite feeling of despair all through. Whenever I have had such feelings, I have found that the prayer has finally not been answered. On the other hand, there are cases where I have experienced peace after repeated prayers. In such cases the prayers were finally answered. This difference may be because of factors like my own faith while asking something that seemed impossible or the intensity and sincerity of my demand, or even my willingness or unwillingness to accept whatever could be God’s own will in the regard. My personal feeling is that one major factor to it is that when the message, the response from the soul is something I am unwilling to hear, it results in the distress due to the non acceptance of the message by the conscious mind and yet a subconscious awareness that the specific request is not in accordance with God’s will. When the answer from the soul is favorable my conscious mind immediately hears and becomes assured and relaxed! This is where one has to remember that prayer is a two way ‘communication’. One has to keep the heart open for answers, and for that matter, whatever those answers may be! One has to become mature enough to keep in mind at all times that God’s choice is best. It is true that belief powers reality but if all belief turned to reality there would have been no space for God. When a strong belief does not become a reality there is more reason to believe in a God who decides whether what we are asking with our limited awareness, is in concurrence to what experience our soul is actually calling out to, for its growth. For we don’t know what we really are wanting, we can ask only from as far as we can be aware of, but the one who gives sees further into our soul. Therefore though it is true that what we believe has the power to come true, we must also remember that Jesus in his prayers always included “Not by my will but according to your will God be it done”. When the rod and staff of God guides us, we must remember that our pain is an indicator that it is a direction we must not take.
What I am suggesting here is that a check on ‘resultant’ feelings could avoid disappointment over unanswered prayers, as these resultant feelings may be an indication of God’s will in the regard. Having realized this, a subsequent acceptance of God’s will as the best would also prevent further distress and dejection. We should remember that when we pray we are in fact surrendering everything to God’s will. The only thing wrong that can happen after such surrender is our non acceptance of God’s will.
Another thing is that prayer for the sick need not be only for the recovery (as I used to think), but more importantly it should involve a prayer to God to provide the necessary courage to the person undergoing the trial and also to those close to him/her. Finally I have found that, regret for a seemingly unanswered prayer is more bearable than a regret of the like, ‘if only I had at least once prayed for that person’.
Asking for ones needs
Now personal prayer can surely also hold something for ones own person! Prayer helps us to define what we need and faith in god helps us to believe that we can get it. At the same time, surrender to gods will helps to ensure that it is not our limited conscious want but our expanded soul yearnings that find fulfillment. When we ask with this surrender, often we might find that things may happen exactly opposite to our beliefs but in the long run, what it eventually leads to, we realize is what we really needed. Even when we seem to be drifting, that really is not the case. We are always moving in the direction of our inner magnets drive. Remember “ All things work for good of those who love God” That is why giving prime importance to God will always lead us in the best direction possible for our lives however difficult the road might seem.
We can speak to God with abandon, as to a best friend. It could be about joys, worries, expectations, anything. Opening our mind in this way helps us become clear about our problem. But to avoid prayer from becoming just "the wallowing in the gutter called our problem" we should also find a solution and focus on it from that point on, to make the solution our reality.
An experience associated with bringing all the emotions to the fore; anger, envy, sorrow or whatever is that in this state of extreme emotions you might discover occasions of the other extreme within, the unperturbed calm which is like the calm centre within a whirlwind; and with this experience, comes an awareness of a remedy to the problem surrendered. To each person experiences during prayer differ, and no particular experience is supposed to be sought after. Every prayer opens its own doors and so prayer has to be always done for its own sake and not seeking a particular experience. Therefore even if one doesn’t get this awareness after the opening up; just a resolve that, ‘now that I have surrendered all in my mind to God, everything that will happen will be God’s will for me and therefore will be what is proper for me, and I will accept it gracefully’, will lead to the same result as would following the answer of the soul.
Prayer to achieve the communication from the other end for answers can involve silence, a form of meditation which is an effort to switch off the human mind and switch on to the cosmic mind. This can be experienced (as described earlier) as the discovery of the inner calm and silence after a period of mindfulness experiencing all emotions to its intensity; or it can be sought directly by focuusing on a single thing like breathing or chanting.
What about following community prayers and religious rules?
Community prayer is based on the verse that says that where two or more people are gathered in God’s name, there God is in the midst of them.
But of course, if any particular method doesn’t seem to help, one must surely experiment with other methods. On the other hand, once prayer has become a part of one’s daily life, any type of prayer would be of help. It’s like exercise. We find one or the other problem with a form of exercise, when we have just initiated into exercising. Once we get into the mind set of exercising daily, we find any form of exercise enjoyable. It’s also the purpose, that is, which part of our body we want to target, that decides which exercise to choose. So also, each stage of development of an individual may call for a different form of prayer. So it would be wisest to just go with what the mind is prepared for at present, rather than trying to identify with what the community is doing.
Something we should keep reminding ourselves is that we always have the freedom to choose. There might be dilemmas. Just as one might feel bound to say only a particular prayer every night, there might also be a compulsion to follow all the rules of the church to perfection. The rules (as well as the manner of prayers) of the church are to direct a man until he is no longer controlled by the flesh. When the spirit leads the man, the rules are not binding. ‘The Sabbath is for man and woman and not they for the Sabbath.’ The church and its rules are also therefore to serve man in his purpose for realization, not man made for the service of the church.
I am not suggesting that we need not follow the rules of the church, rather I am only suggesting that we do not have to become slaves to the rules. Though we may follow all rules sincerely, we should not become unduly upset or guilty over minor omissions for example missing a Sunday mass for something like attending a close friend’s party or for the preparation of an exam. It may seem unbelievable to some, but there are people who feel compelled to attend mass against all odds. If this is done for the joy that attending a mass provides, fine, but if it is a compulsion, it’s not so healthy. To avoid this compulsion it becomes necessary to be aware of the freedom that we have.
I understand the Christian religion as basically a liberating religion rather than a binding one. There is no ‘should do’ in Christianity because what it teaches is that, ‘it is not what we do but what we are, that is important’. A good heart can only lead to good deeds, for a good tree can bear only good fruit. I personally used to have a compulsion to follow all the sayings in the Bible without fail. But as I proceeded with different sayings, I became confused. Following one, made following some other saying quite impossible! With time I realized that since the different books of the Bible have a compilation of wisdom and wise sayings which sometimes seem to go against each other, obviously these cannot be ‘orders’ to be followed strictly; rather we are supposed to select the one that fits our particular circumstances using our own discretion. For example the Bible does suggest that we should give to the needy, like in Mathew 5:42- ‘When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him’. And yet the Bible also warns in parts of its other books that discretion should be maintained in the dealings with wealth. Therefore the call to help others need not compel us to give to every other person and probably get cheated and bankrupt in the process. The Bible does ask us to be innocent as a dove, but it also advices us to be wise as a snake. We have a duty towards ourselves also, and we do need to protect our interests by being discreet in our dealings and by being wary of people who may cheat. For it is also the Bible that says, ‘Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly…..for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them.’ Sirach12:4and5. Therefore if the Bible says at one place that we should give to everybody whatever they ask of us, it also at a different page reminds us of our duty to protect our own interests. We are asked to love our neighbour as ourselves and not more than ourselves. We need to take care we are not cheated or that we are not getting hurt in any obsessive philanthropy.
Jesus said that the commandments given by Moses; do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not murder and so on can be summarised as loving the neighbour as oneself. In saying so Jesus does not defy the commandments conveyed by Moses, but it can be seen that just as Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman to stoning, Jesus, I would believe, does not condemn acts where we have loved ourselves as much as our neighbour; where a self defence has led to murder, where hunger has led to taking bread from a shop, where preserving sanity in a difficult marriage drove a non lustful person to seek solace in a different relation. Laws and directives are where an act can be from clearly “black” or “white” intentions; whereas in reality the terms used to describe any act do not cover the intentions. Jesus said "You judge according to the flesh. I Judge no one" We judge according to who we are and not according to a wide perspective or our spirit's understanding, and so we can be often wrong. Jesus could see a person from human and from a spirit perspective, which is a complete perspective and if he ever judged, his judgement was correct. I feel scriptures only put directives for black and white issues and not for the grey areas because of the possibility of people using it as an excuse to sin. We have to always check that the equations are balanced where preserving one's body, soul and sanity led to an act which is otherwise a sin, rather than selfish intensions leading us, for God will check our hearts in all things.
It should also be noted that Jesus was firm that all laws of Moses should be kept and no word should be added to it. This firmness of Jesus should be seen in the context of the “new teachings” that Pharisees and Sadducees at the time were teaching which went round the laws creating loopholes by adding to the word of God and thereby even allowing for perversions and some forms of murder and abuse. This was why Jesus never minced any words while speaking against them.
Here it should be noted as mentioned earlier that even the Qur’an which suggests stern measures for certain acts goes ahead and says that if the person is regretful, be merciful. Therefore what one requires is not one word, one scripture, but rather the spirit to understand all conflicting words from the backdrop of context. Each person and each scripture has to be read with one’s spirit, with our hearts attuned to God, with knowledge of the context. A pure and clean heart is led in spirit and sees the truth beyond the veil of words. That is what being pure and clean while reading scriptures is all about, as without clarity we could be ‘hearing and hearing but never understanding’. We may wrongly follow words out of fear of going against written words even if it means going against what our spirit directed. But we must understand that our spirit knows all words from all contexts than we may ever read in a lifetime, and so it is to be trusted. In understanding a scripture in its spirit, we are not adding words to it. Yet fear is necessary to follow rules until our hearts are attuned to God. But only until that, for fear should not remain part of our nature when we love God truly.
I feel that the unhealthy ‘compulsion’ to follow rules and directions without using one’s own discretion, is due to an undue fear of God and also therefore everything concerned with God. This fear may also lead some to be unkind to a neighbor! Sometimes it leads an orthodox Christian to disrespect or put down another who has a different faith or who follows a different path. Or there might be occasions when a devout, disregard the needs of a visiting friend or neighbor in an obsession to follow all the religious rules. In occasions like these it is wise to remember the concept of ‘attithi devo bhava’ (the guest is God) and also ‘If you cannot love the neighbour whom you can see, how can you claim to love God whom you cannot see?’ as the bible tells us.
There is freedom from all laws for those led by the spirit. ‘Freedom is what we have- Christ has set us free. Galatians 5:1.’ And so, whatever one does with a good intention is good. It is not your act but rather the thought behind the act that counts. For example sexuality is not a sin, it is part of our natural instinct but if we follow lustful expression of sexuality it become sin because it is selfish, whereas if we are pulled by our love for another to this expression, then it can lead one to a higher energy state, connecting us more to the positive energies of the universe. It is the intention with which sex is approached and not the act in itself that is good or bad. Tantra Shastra also affirms regarding sex that it only degrades the degraded, only harms the harmful, is only evil to the evil, but is a joy to the joyful, healthful to the healthy, illuminating to those who seek illumination. One should meditate before and after sex for the energy of sex to direct one to illumination. In everything, as ye seek, so shall ye find.
Even something like vegetarianism or even hardcore fasting can be considered under this freedom. Christianity has it that the non vegetarian is praising God by accepting what God has provided and the vegetarian is praising God by respecting the life that God created as sacred. Therefore the one who eats and the one who does not eat flesh are both at heart glorifying God. But when a vegetarian shuns a neighbour, just for being a non vegetarian, would that be really pleasing to God?
Likewise one can fast as long as it helps in the worship. In fact fasting has been used for ages to help in making prayer more effective. Denying food to the body is a deliberate denial of the body as the real self and thereby attention is shifted to the spirit. Fasting prods all our faculties to focus more on prayer and commune with God through the awareness of the real self. The whole purpose of the day of fasting becomes prayer and thereby the prayer becomes unceasing and immensely powerful. And yet, even Buddha gave up fasting when he found it was not helping. If a person is able to worship better on a full stomach, then that is what should be done. In everything we do, we should never lose sight of the purpose. Keeping a fast should not become more important than worshiping. Isaiah chapter 58 speaks about false and true worship. In verse 5 of the chapter, the people complain, that though they fast, God does not seem to notice. The answer given to them further in the chapter is, ‘Look you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice…., is it not to share your bread with the hungry.…, when you see the naked to cover them. Then you shall call and the Lord will answer….. Isaiah 58: 4, 6, 7 and 9.’ And therefore if we can do such service to our neighbour, if we can give something of what we have to others, we are in a way fasting.
But though we have freedom and though the rules of church or a procedure of prayer need not be followed out of a compulsion, it does not mean that we can ignore them totally. These should still be followed, keeping in mind the common good. Saint Paul has implied that though you (strong in faith) do not need to follow any rituals, yet you must do it for those who are weaker in faith. They should not become disturbed by your (a devout Christian’s) attitude and wander away even further.
Also following rituals are not always merely only the initial steps, towards the goal of realization, but one who enjoys prayer, can enjoy them and find them useful even when he has gone much beyond the stage of rituals. In fact there are some situations where ritualistic prayer becomes necessary. There can be occasions when all our belief power and all our prayers for peace or release from any issue goes unanswered. We do not know what is causing this relentless torment in our lives. We might not have done any grave sin to deserve the evil that we observe in our lives. On such occasions we must remember that god does not hear when there is sin in the family line and so we could even conclude that there are curses in the family. Here ritualistic prayer (like chaplets of mercy) for forgiveness of ancestral sin done with sincerity for a duration with fasting and faith helps to free from the binding powers of evil that is brought into a family line on account of ancestral sins.
Therefore the road to realization need not be like a ladder, it can be a peculiar web of a road where everything is enmeshed together, at every point. That is, where new learning is added on and yet the essence of the old remains, thus creating a more wholesome realm.
To get a hold of the core of this chapter, it would be good to look again at the example of the monkey who could not take his hand out of the surahi because he was not willing to let go of the peanuts. This example is such a powerful pointer and is packed with so many meanings that it can be used to understand the essence of this chapter as well. We want to think clearly and freely but we are afraid to let go of what we have been taught. We are afraid to let go of what has been drilled into our minds as ‘must believe’, ‘must do’. Unless we keep aside what we think we need to believe, because our church teaches us or the religion tells us, how can we think freely? What freedom do we have? What one’s religion, one’s church teaches or directs one to do, may be absolutely true but our belief would be so much stronger if we thought with freedom and found that what we have been taught is true. Doing with faith is always better than doing out of fear. Doing with freedom is better than doing out of compulsion.
Freedom helps in getting the right answers to all our questions. Answer to every question is buried deep within the soul. Whenever a question plagues the mind, shed all the ideas that the world has so far put in the brain and with a fresh slate ask the soul for the answer. The answer the soul gives is the one to be taken. But how do we know the Soul when it speaks? I do believe that the soul is always speaking to us but we choose not to hear it when we choose to follow preexisting beliefs and outside information. If one takes the exactly opposite course, that is, make a regular practice of discounting answers provided from the outside then soon one could be hearing from the soul!
For the Thomases, the skeptics, to experience God
The important thing for Thomas to remember when it comes to experiencing God is to forget trying to reach him through intellectual questioning alone. There is always a desire to know but the more we know the more we know that we don’t know. When we truly realize this, all our further questions will be quelled and we would know that the horizon can never be reached, and probably then we would realize that wherever we stand there is the horizon!
The question free mind is calm and in the stillness of mind one can better comprehend God. All Christians know the verse that says ‘Be still and know you are God’. A question free mind is therefore a prerequisite for the experience of God; for it is only undisturbed waters which can give a clear reflection of our face. That is why Jesus stresses that, ‘do not let your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’ For these are the major blocks separating man and God and not really a lack of a total comprehension of God.
Jesus has said ‘happy are those who have not seen, yet believe’. In saying this he told us the way to be happy, the way to the bliss that is God. The statement implies for us Thomases that it would serve us to allow faith to heal the questions that just cannot be resolved by any amount of intellectual efforts. If we are happy to think of God as a caring parent, then let us have faith that we are not wrong. He is that and more. If we could be happier by believing that God is ‘the true self’, then such a belief is not wrong either. He is that and more. For God, cannot be confined within our limited understanding. And so to give room to God we have to make space in our minds for that which is beyond our understanding. We have to allow God to be bigger than all the concepts that are within the grasp of intellect. Having thus given up ‘the insatiable curiosity’, we can move away from the endless road of questioning and finally park within the experience of happiness, everyday, by just opening up to God and asking Him for the joy of His presence. For God is not to be found at the end of the road of questioning. God is found by the daily practice of faith. Answers to questions, only increases the understanding of the ‘body’ about the ‘soul’. To ‘experience the soul’, the body has to recede to the background, which is only possible when we discourage an excessive leaning towards ‘thinking our way to the experience of God’. This is because thinking is a function of the body and of the mind and though it does help to 'understand' the mind of God, but to 'experience' the soul of the universe, the spirit of God, we have to forget our mind. Understanding helps to an extent, but when it stops being helpful, it implies that it is time to change track and give way to unquestioning faith. That is, when we reach near the unseen, guided by the seen, by our intellect, our mind, we have to abandon this ladder, push it away, because only then would we make the leap to reach and hold on to our destination. To push away the ladder and make the leap, the important ingredient is faith. That is why it said that belief is necessary to experience God. That is why Jesus tells us repeatedly in the Bible to 'Believe'
When faith in God puts an end to doubts and when love for God overcomes self love, mastery over the false self (which causes all doubts and selfishness by stressing on thinking rather than being) is achieved. And when one has really learnt to become a mere witness to one's own emotions with the help of any or all sorts of methods, then perhaps, could come the understanding that ‘the body is merely a machine which we have actually now learnt to handle!’ That is when the real self would start becoming obvious to us, and that would bring in moments of exhilaration which is often quite plainly called ‘realization’. The body then becomes the tool to the experiences of the higher energy through any means that we might choose with this one pure intention. Bliss will course through our system and slowly our continued and constant dedication to God gets rewarded by bliss taking over and become a more and more frequent experience. So much so that even the thought of God or any touching moment would raise our spirit to a 'high' till the ‘high spirit or high energy’ becomes a constant state of our being.
We would then know that mortal life is something like a painting. A painting, as we know, is not the reality but it opens our eyes to the beauty in the world that is there before our very eyes but we could never notice. In the same way the world and our body is not the reality, but it is the way to the joy of the experience of the only reality God. He is the deity in the temple of our body and is the truth we need to inroad to . Something like what Picasso said about art…
Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth…Pablo Picasso