“Understand your pride and it will drop- what results will be humility. Understand your fears and they will melt- the resultant state is love. Understand your attachment and they will vanish- the consequence is freedom. Love and freedom and happiness are not things that you can cultivate and produce. You cannot even know what they are. All you can do is observe their opposites and, through your observation, cause these opposites to die.” (Anthony deMello)
As a general learns from the experience of past battles, a spiritual practitioner consults methods that have been tried, tested, and shown to be effective.
Yoga, in all its variations and forms, is the means to establish the beachhead. It’s the blueprint for how to approach the internal enemies everyone will inevitably face. We are extremely fortunate in our time and age to have at our disposal a veritable treasure trove of wisdom that’s been handed down for generations.
Perhaps because there’s so much information out there, it can be hard to settle on a single path. There are so many different methods that it’s tempting to jump from one to another when it seems like your path isn’t “working” as quickly or effectively as you’d like.
Any military operation will have its detractors; there will always be generals who think they have a better strategy. Similarly, on the spiritual path, there are individuals and groups who think that they have the sole strategy for success, who imply that they have seen the alternatives and are assured that their path is the way.
I was one of those people. I thought that what worked for me would work for everyone. But the truth is that what works for one person in one situation won’t necessarily work for another person in the same situation. And what works at one point in life might not necessarily work later.
As I’ve described, devotional practices like chanting and spending time with gurus have now become central in my life. But at first, I was completely dismissive.
For example, while in Nepal, I walked around the largest stupa in the world with thousands of Tibetans who held the belief that this simple action generated ‘merit.’ Many of those alongside me spun handheld prayer wheels and repeated mantras thousands of times as they circumambulated the whitewashed structure.
I looked out and asked, what’s the causal mechanism between spinning a little wheel inscribed with a mantra and the good fortune that comes into your life? I dismissed such practices as antiquated superstition.
I has asked similar questions of Amma’s devotees. What in the world would dedicating my actions to the guru achieve? Or singing songs?
The Buddha recommended that you should only accept the aspects of spiritual practice whose truth and value you had seen for yourself. For a long time, devotional practices fell outside of that category.
A good general is open to improvisation. He must have an open and flexible mind, and be willing to consider strategies that might seem unorthodox. He would be wise to invite foreign advisors who might have a better grasp of the situation than he has.
This is precisely what happened for me. I had used meditation as a means to investigate my body and emotions, and this practice helped to create a foundation around which I organized my efforts. But at a certain point, I came to the limits of this approach.
As I understood it, the goal of meditation- still pointed concentration of the mind- was entirely beyond my grasp. Despite incremental benefits and insights, my mind was as volatile as and chaotic as ever even practicing sitting for years.
I was out of ammo; a change of strategy was needed.
This is when devotion entered my life. I slowly came to see the wisdom in this path, which didn’t really “work” in the traditional sense I thought it would. Instead of step-by-step incremental benefits accruing with increased technical mastery, devotion “worked” to the extent that it got me to stop working so hard. I experienced a tremendous release when I finally admitted that I, as an ego-based creature, was completely helpless on the path of awakening. Anything I did to try to improve myself simply reinforced the ego I was working so hard to get away from.
When my heart opened, I saw that no battle is necessary in the first place. The idea of a battle only occurs from the standpoint of the ego, which is keeps itself in business by repeating its claim that God/Buddha Nature is something separate, distant, and to be attained only by hard and diligent work.
The battle is to drop the idea that there needs to be a battle. When Jesus said “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, he was saying that when we yoke (unite) ourselves with his example of a surrendered, selfless life, the trials and struggles of our little lives drop their burdensome character. This is something that can be done in an instant, when we step out of ourselves, and understand that we are partaking in the unfolding of something greater.
The beachhead is established when you understand that there is a dimension of yourself that exists beyond selfish instrumentality, which is fully present in each and every fleeting breath, already within you, simply waiting for you to come and recognize it. There is no enemy except illusion; no strategy is necessary except to simply see reality as it is.
Nevertheless, it may be useful at certain points to use the beachhead metaphor. Like the Buddhist raft, use it as long as you need it, but don’t forget to let it go!