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Milestones on the Journey of Self-Cultivation

When you drive to another city, you navigate by looking for the waypoints, rest-stops and highway numbers that you know ought to be there.  That’s the difference between going on a journey and bumbling about.  In the same way, there are definite milestones in spiritual life, many of which are so universal and so fundamental to the needs of the human condition that they can be seen across vastly diverse ancient traditions.

 

Step 1: Renunciation

Renunciation is the first and most easily misunderstood step.  Its purpose is for you to form the resolve and willpower to recognise and change whatever habits, attachments and thoughts are holding you back.  It requires acknowledgement of the harm we have done and the flaws from which we suffer, so that we may offer them and ourselves to be transformed.  This step appears in every tradition under different guises, but it is also the one that can be taken too far, becoming a renunciation of the world and of other people.

 

Step 2: Dedication

The antidote for this is to dedicate your effort to the benefit of suffering beings.  This is something the greatest saints of the Christian East have done, but it is the Buddhists who have formalised it in the bodhisattva vows, where the practitioner dedicates their enlightenment to the liberation of all suffering beings.

 

This intention to benefit all beings,

Which does not arise in most beings,

Is an extraordinary jewel of the mind,

And its birth is an unprecedented wonder.

–          Shantideva, The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

 

Step 3: Cultivating Compassion

In some branches of these traditions, your next step would be heroic asceticism.  While asceticism remains a necessary tool for dissolving habits and attachments, other traditions recognise that the motive force behind the practice is the most important element.  That force is love or compassion.

 

An ascetic without compassion is a tree that bears no fruit.

–          St. Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies

 

To transform yourself through universal love and compassion is the highest aim of spiritual life, but to begin cultivating it at this point does three things for you:

–          It ensures that your self-discipline is correctly motivated and does not degenerate into a rejection of the physical world

–          It becomes the measure of your relationships, your actions toward others and mental attitudes.  This way, your spiritual life becomes an active one from the very beginning, and you begin to heal your relationships and set up positive dynamics through helping others.  Your spiritual endeavours come to fuel your life, and your successes and failures in life provide feedback for your spiritual efforts.

–          Most importantly, it provides the Tantric means of transforming your outer habits and attachments.  Lama Yeshe teaches, “Tantra emphasises that it is much more effective for human beings to enjoy themselves and channel the energy of their enjoyment into a quick and powerful path to fulfillment and enlightenment.”

 

Step 4: Watchfulness

Watchfulness appears in every authentic spiritual tradition.  Think of it as spring-cleaning for the mind.  Watchfulness sets the inner attention in the role of observer, apart from the thought-stream of the rational mind.  From this vantage it can observe how thoughts arise, whether they are harmful or beneficial, and what mental conditioning they bear.  In Buddhist terms, this is examination of the aggregate components of the thought stream in order to overcome dualistic perceptions and the desires and false views that cause suffering.   This also requires editing or ending lines of thought which are harmful.  Hesychios the Priest defines watchfulness as “the continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart.”   In this state, the “I” stands above the rational mind and watches, itself silent.

 

The Tantric version is rather more radical.  By identifying themselves with an enlightened being, Tantric practitioners acknowledge the truth of their future enlightenment and seek to take on the thoughts and qualities of the enlightened being they wish to become.   In this way, their “I” is imputed to their future status as an enlightened being, and seek to align their mind with the non-dual awareness of the Buddha mind.

 

Step 5: Single-Pointedness

The next stage is single-pointed attention or attentiveness or stillness.  This technique first gathers all mental attention within the body, and aligns it behind a single focus.  The goal of one-pointed meditation as expressed in Tibetan Mahamudra is the simplicity of not grasping onto any concept, even emptiness, and any duality, even samsara and nirvana, observer or observed, so that everything seen in the world is realised to have a single “taste,” the taste of dharma, since everything can be realised as enlightenment.

 

In hesychasm, collected attention is the groundwork for inner prayer.  Hesychios writes, “Attentiveness is the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought… Continuity of attention produces inner stability; inner stability produces a natural intensification of watchfulness; and this intensification…gives contemplative insight.”   Hesychasts interpret the scriptural instruction to go into a closet and shut the door in order to pray spiritually as meaning to enter into the closet of the heart and shut the doors of the senses and the thought-stream of the rational mind.

 

These first stages of spiritual life can be broadly categorised using the Greek term, μετάνοια, which means a change of mind, life and inner being.  Complete Reality Taoism calls this “refining the self,” which “means burning away temporal accretions encrusting the senses, temperamental biases, and all acquired energies with which one has become imbalanced through habituation.”

 

Step 6: Abiding in  the Non-dual Consciousness

 

The kingdom of God is within you

–          Luke 17:21

 

By small degrees is love lit, with patience it is kindled, and it becomes a great flame seizing the heavens.

–          St. Symeon the New Theologian

 

Within you, beneath all of the thoughts and emotions and conceptions and conditioning which you have accumulated and which contribute to your suffering, beneath the ego you defend, is a mind of clear nondual awareness.  It is called many things- true consciousness, gold elixir, seed consciousness, nous.  The entire substance of the work of Hesychasm, of Mahamudra Tantra and of all other authentic traditions is to find and abide in this mind.

 

The great Taoist philosopher Chang Po-tuan writes of this stage, “What the work requires is first to recognise the natural, innocent true mind, and then to use the true mind to refine the self.  Then a point of celestial energy emerges in the darkness; this is called true consciousness.”

 

In the tradition of interior prayer, the objective is for the heart to pray with wordless love, until the eternal love of God comes to abide in it, transforming the whole being.

 

In the Buddhist Mahamudra tradition, this original mind is realised as the mind of the Buddhas.

 

Step 7: Action/Creation

The step that most often gets lost, yet that should run throughout the entire process and mirror it, is putting our inner realisations into action and addressing our outer shortcomings interiorly.  To re-create our lives, our relationships, our world according to the image of the compassionate self which we are trying to become, is both an important goal and an important means for our journey.  This is what the great master of inner prayer Theophan the Recluse describes when he writes, “There will begin an active and vital transformation of soul and body, and of outer relationships… And you will become a real person.”

 

The world is shaped by the ways in which we view it.  By viewing it and interacting with it in a grasping way, we have increased the world’s suffering.  It is only when we have overcome the disorder within ourselves that causes suffering that we can truly begin to alleviate the world’s suffering.

 

The Golden Key: The Tantric Approach

Love, the highest state for which our beings are designed, the state of nondual union in diversity, automatically calms and aligns all lower desires.  That is the entire basis of Buddhist Tantra.  In the cultivation and practice of love, you will gain the strength to release habitual grasping after desired outcomes and become fully natural.  You will enjoy pleasures or not, without these things becoming your master.

 

The Hesychastic practice of interior prayer is in itself a brilliant shortcut to the experience of love in spiritual development.  Anything can feed and inspire the prayer- the beauty of nature, the presence or memory of beloved people, compassion for the suffering, the memory of the departed, the problems of the present, music and poems and books.  In that sense, it is truly Tantric, making the beauty and pain of temporal existence the path to love.  Your task, therefore, is to collect your mind in compassion and to pursue whatever will help to build it in every moment.

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