When does spiritual yearning kick in? Why does it happen for some people and not others?
Most of us take our existence for granted. Sure, we love life and existence – that’s what fear of death is about: the fear of ceasing to exist – but because we experience ourselves as the mind and body, our innate sense of being is pushed to the background and we take our existence for granted. Yet, our I-feeling is always there. In fact, it has to be since we can’t experience anything unless we are present.
And yet, our natural sense of being doesn’t seem to provide us with any inner fulfillment. Instead, our mind is always chasing after one thing or another in the hope of experiencing more happiness and joy. As life whirls us through its revolving door of pleasures and pains, some of us reach a point of fatigue that causes us to question why our happiness is fleeting and whether there is some higher purpose to life. We awaken to spiritual yearning. Then we come across teachings from one wisdom tradition or another that instruct us to turn within, marking the beginning of our spiritual journey.
Even then, when we first try to look within, we don’t experience much. Our I-sense, or felt presence of being, is there, but it doesn’t feel like anything special. Our sense of being is neutral: neither painful or joyful in any specific way, which is why our mind continues to search for joy in external things.
And yet, what we don’t realize is that our plain old I-sense conceals, just beneath the surface, a vast treasure of peace and bliss so strong that its experience would cause us to drop all other pursuits. It’s like the classic story of the man who spent his entire life using an old wooden crate as a stool, not realizing that the box was filled with solid bars of gold.
So if our I-sense is so special, why doesn’t it yield any bliss, knowledge, or liberation? Sri Ramana teaches that the force known as the ego is to blame. As long as our ego is present, our I-sense will remain tied to our body and mind, and the natural bliss and peace of pure Awareness will remain hidden. Tantric philosophy also accepts this teaching but expands on it through the doctrine of the three malas (impurities born of spiritual ignorance): ānavamala, māyīyamala, and kārmamala. In essence, our undivided consciousness stays contracted by the operation of these three forces: the experience that we are a limited individual, that we live in duality, i.e. a universe filled with subjects and objects, and that we are the doer of actions.
So what keeps our ego afloat? The answer lies in our thought-stream, which flows incessantly. When a rushing stream becomes still, the sand beneath is easily revealed. Likewise, when our thoughts stop flowing, the ego falls apart and the glory of pure Consciousness shines forth.
How do we still our thought-stream? By pivoting our attention 180 degrees away from our thoughts and onto our I-sense. We do this in our waking state through the practice of Self-inquiry and we do this in closed-eye meditation.
But here’s the most important part: when we finally sit down to meditate, many of us will experience a little calm and relaxation, but we won’t gain access to the promised bliss and peace. Then we begin to wonder if all this talk of bliss and peace is nothing but a myth or wishful thinking? In truth, most of us will need to pay attention to our I-sense for some time before the first traces of bliss and peace begin to bubble up. It’s no different than digging a well. We won’t touch water on our first strike.
When we meditate knowing that it takes time to see results, we can let go of expectations and relax into the practice. We just enjoy the opportunity to allow our attention to rest in its own source, the I-sense, before we begin our day. Since normally our attention is pulled in so many directions (and so many times a day), we need to make time to allow our attention to turn within. From the perspective of yoga, depression and mental illness are traced back to how often our attention is forced to jump from one thing to another (think multitasking and the demands of email and social media). So making time at dawn to quiet our thoughts and rest in our I-sense is not only the heart of yogic practice, it supports our mental health and wellbeing.
Learning how to gently rest in our I-sense is our main practice here at the Mahāsāra School of Meditation. That said, we’ll explore the beauty inherent in all aspects of yoga: devotion, chanting, mantra repetition, yogic scriptures, the lives of great Gurus, and more. Each of these limbs of practice are really spokes of a wheel that support and guide us back to the Heart practice of resting in our true nature. So the next time you happen to notice what feels like ordinary awareness peering out from behind your eyes, remember that your witnessing consciousness is the Divine itself hiding behind the ego. The light of supreme Consciousness is hiding in plain sight as your I-sense, just waiting to be discovered.
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